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High hopes: Utes open 2018 season eyeing elusive Pac-12 South title

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah kicks off its 125th football season Thursday night (6 p.m., P12N) at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Weber State. The Utes do so with high expectations, projected by many prognosticators to contend for what has been an elusive outright Pac-12 South title.

“The team has been working hard. They have a great work ethic and have been very focused,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I, for one, am very excited to watch them play on Thursday night."

The Utes have won 10 straight season openers under Whittingham. They outscored the opposition 326-147 in those games, recording victories over Michigan (twice), Utah State (twice), Pittsburgh, and five Big Sky Conference teams — Idaho State, Montana State, Northern Colorado, North Dakota and Southern Utah.

Utah Utes linebacker Jared Norris (41) tackles Michigan Wolverines tight end Jake Butt (88) during the Utah Utes and Michigan Wolverines football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.
Utah Utes linebacker Jared Norris (41) tackles Michigan Wolverines tight end Jake Butt (88) during the Utah Utes and Michigan Wolverines football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.

"There are benefits to opening up against a Michigan like we did a few years ago and there are benefits to opening against an FCS team,” Whittingham said. “We don't really concern ourselves too much with who we are playing. Your preparation is very similar and there isn't really a difference in your fall camp or anything like that. You just play them as you unfold and whoever is up next is where our focus is."

This year the attention is on Weber State. The Wildcats, who are coached by former Utah player and assistant Jay Hill, are coming off their best season in school history. They won a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and reached the FCS quarterfinals, finishing 11-3 overall. _“_Weber is going to be a test,” Whittingham said. “They are a good football team.”

Weber State head coach Jay Hill reacts after a play during the the first half of an NCAA college football game against Idaho State on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 in Ogden, Utah. (Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner via AP)
Weber State head coach Jay Hill reacts after a play during the the first half of an NCAA college football game against Idaho State on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 in Ogden, Utah. (Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner via AP)
AP

Whittingham noted that he and Hill are very close. Hill was one of his first hires when he became Utah’s head coach in 2005.

"He coached very well for us his entire time here and he was very versatile. He coached special teams, he coached offense, he coached defense and he was an outstanding recruiter. He was very valuable to the success we had here,” Whittingham said. “Then he moved on and had the opportunity to be the head coach at Weber.

"It doesn't surprise me at all what he has been able to do there and the success he has had and will continue to have. He is a smart guy that is well-organized and very disciplined. He has a very good rapport."

Coach Jay Hill and Westlee Tonga during Univerisity of Utah football practice Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Salt Lake City.
Coach Jay Hill and Westlee Tonga during Univerisity of Utah football practice Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Salt Lake City.
Deseret News

Hill’s homecoming, though, becomes a secondary storyline once the game kicks off. Whittingham has said this Utah team is the deepest and most talented since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011. They open conference play Sept. 15 at home against league favorite Washington.

Weber State and next week at Northern Illinois, thus, carry added importance in terms of fine-tuning things. Whittingham said eliminating mental mistakes and drive-killing mistakes like illegal procedure penalties and missed assignments were areas of emphasis during the final week of practices before the opener.

“All of our work is about to come into play,” said Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, who added this is what the team has prepared for all spring, summer and fall camp.

Utah's Demari Simpkins runs with the ball while practicing with the rest of the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 30, 2018.
Utah's Demari Simpkins runs with the ball while practicing with the rest of the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 30, 2018.

EXTRA POINTS: Utah is 4-0 against Weber State. The Utes won the last meeting 70-7 in 2013 ... Junior offensive lineman Johnny Capra, once a projected starter at left guard, will miss the entire season with an unspecified injury ... Wide receiver Demari Simpkins will wear No. 7 instead of No. 3 this season ... Utah officials have announced 51 straight sellouts at Rice-Eccles Stadium ... This is Weber State’s 57th football season.

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Utes, 'Cats on the air

Utah vs. Weber State

Thursday, 6 p.m.

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: 700 AM