It’s kind of like Christmas — opening your presents and finding out what you’ve got. – Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had a pretty good comparison to make when it comes to opening camp.
“It’s kind of like Christmas — opening your presents and finding out what you’ve got,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got a lot of new players that joined the program this year and you’re always anxious to get them on the field and see what their capabilities are.”
Whittingham, who is entering his 12th season at the helm of the Utes, noted that starting a new campaign never gets old.
“You don’t want to get stale in this profession,” he said. You’ve got to stay excited and stay fresh.”
Utah opens camp Thursday with 14 returning starters from last year’s squad that went 10-3 and defeated BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Utes, who finished in a first-place tie with USC in the Pac-12 South, enter the upcoming season with a few question marks — namely at quarterback, wide receiver and linebacker.
“Those are the three main issues we’re facing going into camp,” Whittingham said.
Utah, picked third in the division by the Pac-12 media, opens the season Sept. 1 with Southern Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes begin conference play Sept. 23 at home against USC.
NEW QUARTERBACK: The graduation of Travis Wilson, who set a school record with 46 games at quarterback and 39 starts, has left the Utes looking for a new signal caller. The search began in spring ball and will continue into fall camp with junior college transfer Troy Williams, junior Brandon Cox and true freshman Tyler Huntley battling for the job.
Williams, who began his career at Washington, was the front-runner before being sidelined with an injury midway through spring practices. He’s now healthy again, but Whittingham insists the competition is still wide open.
“It’s going to be key, obviously, to our season,” Whittingham said at Pac-12 Media Days in July.
Whittingham, though, insists the process can’t be manufactured or rushed, even if it’s desirable to make a decision as soon as possible.
“They’ve got to separate themselves on the field,” he explained. “But it’s going to be of huge importance to us — making sure we get the right guy — and that’s our job as coaches to make sure that happens.”
Whittingham said that all three quarterbacks will get an equal amount of reps when camp opens.
RECEIVING PLAYMAKERS: Utah’s throw game wasn’t on target last season. The Utes ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in passing offense with just 180 yards per game.
“We didn’t throw the ball nearly as well as we needed to last year,” Whittingham said. “We need to have a big step forward in production at that position.”
Experience, however, is in relative short supply.
Utah’s top four receivers from 2015 are gone. Britain Covey (43 receptions) is now serving an LDS Church mission, while Kenneth Scott (39), Devontae Booker (37) and Bubba Poole (24) have graduated. Junior tight end Harrison Handley (21) is the top returnee. As for the wide receivers coming back, sophomore Tyrone Smith had the most catches with 18.
Changes, though, have been made. Former BYU receivers coach Guy Holliday is now overseeing the position group and there is reason for optimism. Senior Tim Patrick is back after missing 16 games with a leg injury and versatile senior Cory Butler-Byrd is slated to play receiver on a full-time basis after making his mark as a cornerback last season.
MIDDLE OF THE ‘D’: A major rebuild is in the works at linebacker with the graduation of Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham. The trio combined for 230 tackles, 26 stops behind the line of scrimmage and nine takeaways. Their departures leave a huge void — even on a defense that has a tradition of reloading and is talent-rich on the line and in the secondary.
“We’ve got to have guys step up and produce for us in that capacity,” Whittingham said.
Utah’s switch from a base 4-3 defense alleviates some of the concerns at linebacker. However, the search for two starters at linebacker is ongoing. Sophomore Cody Barton and junior Sunia Tauteoli stepped forward in spring ball. Highly touted junior college transfer Kavika Luafatasaga is now in the mix and is expected to make an immediate impact. True freshmen Davir Hamilton and Donovan Thompson add depth.
CENTER OF ATTENTION: When it comes to lines — both offensive and defensive — Whittingham likes what he sees.
“We expect to be among the best in the Pac-12. It’s a good starting point,” Whittingham said. “If you want to have a good football team, it’s obviously important to be good up front.”
On defense, the Utes are loaded. Juniors Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi are the projected starters at tackle, while seniors Hunter Dimick and Kylie Fitts return at end. They’re backed by plenty of depth.
There’s a big vacancy, however, to fill on the offensive line after projected starting center Hiva Lutui suffered a career-ending injury in spring ball.
“That’s really the only question mark on the offensive line,” Whittingham said.
Camp opens with senior Nick Nowakowski topping the depth chart. Junior Lo Falemaka is listed as the backup. Senior right tackle J.J. Dielman and senior left guard Isaac Asiata are other possibilities as the Utes seek to put their top five linemen on the field.
“That’s always our M.O. — is get the best guys out there at the best combination,” Whittingham said.
Depth shouldn’t be an issue with four returning starters on the offensive line and the addition of former Snow College standout Garett Bolles.
BOOKER-LESS BACKFIELD: For the past two seasons, Utah put the ball in Booker’s hands quite often. The Denver Broncos rookie paced the Utes’ offense with 560 carries for 2,773 yards. He also caught the ball 80 times.
Senior Joe Williams is ticketed to become the starter this season. However, he’ll likely be joined by others in filling the massive workload that Booker handled.
Junior Troy McCormick is back from an injury that sidelined him last season and pushed Williams in spring ball. Redshirt freshman Marcel Manalo also had a good camp. The future is bright with the arrival of Florida high school stars Devonta’e Henry-Cole and Zach Moss.
“The running back battle should be exciting,” Whittingham said. “We feel Joe’s going to be our primary ball carrier, but there’s a lot of competition for the two and three spots.”
Whittingham emphasized the need for a couple of guys to step up.
“That’s going to be an interesting battle,” he said.