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5 storylines to follow as Utes open spring football Monday

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is ready to get after it again. The Utes will open their 14th camp under his direction on Monday.

“Very eager to get going,” said Whittingham, whose squad will practice six times before spring break (March 17-25) and nine times after. The Red-White Game is set for April 11 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Camp is starting 7-10 days earlier than usual because of where spring break is scheduled this year.

There’s snow on the ground. However, Whittingham isn’t all that worried about it.

“We don’t have any control over that. So we’ll just deal with it as it comes,” he said. “We have a great indoor facility to utilize. So we’re not really concerned too much about what the weather is going to be.”

Whittingham’s focus is on the team.

“It’s going to be great to get started again and get back on the field,” he said.

Quarterbacks battle brewing?

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley makes a pass against Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The arrival of highly touted California prep star Jack Tuttle has altered the landscape. How will returning starter Tyler Huntley, a junior, handle the competition? What about the difference in their skill sets?

“They are somewhat different, not markedly different,” Whittingham said. “They’re both excellent throwers, and Jack Tuttle runs a lot better than people may give him credit for. He’s fast and he’s shifty.”

Whittingham also had praise for freshman quarterback Jason Shelley, who redshirted last season.

“He’s right in the mix in there as well,” Whittingham said. “He’s a guy that we think is very talented, and so it’s not just Tyler Huntley and Jack Tuttle.”

All of the quarterbacks are competing doing well, Whittingham added, and “we’ll see what happens.”

Return of a familiar face

He’s back. After head coaching stints at Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State, former Utah offensive lineman and defensive coordinator Gary Andersen has returned to the program as a defensive assistant. He’ll focus his coaching on the interior defensive line. Lewis Powell will oversee the defensive ends.

Utah State coach Gary Andersen and Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham talk prior to the game in Logan Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“It’s a great addition to our staff,” Whittingham said. “We now have three guys in that room with coordinator experience (Morgan Scalley, Justin Ena and Andersen).”

Andersen will be charged with developing Utah’s stable of young defensive tackles.

“He’s got a great track record of doing that,” Whittingham said.

Besides working with the defense, Andersen will also serve as associate head coach. He rejoined the Utah staff in January when the NCAA allowed teams to hire a 10th assistant coach.

Can the receivers step up quickly?

Whittingham noted that the situation at wide receiver needs to be sorted out with the departure of last season’s top two receivers — Darren Carrington II and Raelon Singleton. They combined to make 40.6 percent of Utah’s catches in 2017.

Utah wide receiver Demari Simpkins catches a touchdown pass in Los Angeles against USC on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“It’s going to be a wide-open competition,” said Whittingham, who acknowledged that establishing a depth chart at the position will be a priority.

Junior Siaosi Mariner (formerly Wilson) is the top returnee from last year with 30 receptions. Junior Demari Simpkins and sophomore Samson Nacua were a close second with 29.

Sophomore Britain Covey, who led the Utes with 41 catches in 2015, returns after completing an LDS Church mission but won’t be ready for spring ball. He’s scheduled to join the Utes for summer conditioning at the end of May.

Texas Tech transfer Bronson Boyd is one to watch.

The most unsettled positions

Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae rushes North Dakota quarterback Keaton Studsrud during a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Graduation has taken its toll with starters Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts completing their collegiate eligibility. Junior left end Bradlee Anae is now the experienced veteran up front for the Utes.

“It creates opportunity for guys on our defensive line to step up and earn spots,” said Whittingham, who added that the loss of David Luafatasaga at linebacker has also left a void. “So those are probably the most unsettled positions right now.”

Utah’s pre-spring depth chart features Anae and sophomore Maxs Tupai as the starters at end. Junior Leki Fotu leads the list at left tackle, while sophomore Pita Tonga and junior John Penisini share the top spot at right tackle.

At linebacker, seniors Cody Barton and Chase Hansen enter camp atop the depth chart.

Switching spots and stepping up

Utah defensive back Chase Hansen breaks up a pass against USC in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Hansen is slated to make the move from safety to linebacker. Whittingham is eager to see how the versatile athlete transfers to the spot on a regular basis. Junior defensive end Chris Hart is also shifting positions, moving to the linebacker corps from defensive end. Hansen and Hart are competing for time at rover. The mac position is being contested by senior Cody Barton and junior Donavan Thompson.

Another position to keep an eye on is tight end. The graduation of Harrison Handley and Siale Fakailoatonga has created a vacancy. Junior Jake Jackson and sophomore Bapa Falemaka headline the hopefuls going into camp.

Whittingham said tight end is right up there with receiver and the defensive line in terms of replacing starters and looking for guys to step up.