Over one month and 15 spring practices, including last Saturday’s spring game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utah football program learned a lot about itself.
There was a lot to learn, considering the Utes played only five games during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season; considering a bevy of newcomers and young players on the roster; and considering the voids to fill at quarterback, wide receiver and running back.
Coach Kyle Whittingham has a much better idea of what his team is capable of heading into the 2021 season.
“I think we’re going to be a complete football team,” he said after the spring game. “We had some question marks at certain positions and I think we’ve solidified just about every question mark we had.”
Walking the walk
Linebacker Devin Lloyd said his view of this team has changed during the course of spring drills. He learned that the Utes aren’t just talking about winning — they’re putting in the work necessary to win.
“As you start to see guys get on the field and how they work, it’s more than just talking. I can see that this team truly does want to win a championship and truly is hungry. It’s always been the goal, it always is the goal, it’s always what we talk about,” he said. “But it’s about how you back up what you’re talking about through practice, through your work ethic, and through all the things you do outside of football.
“I’ve seen that from this team. I’ve seen it from guys that I didn’t used to necessarily see it from. I see more of it from the guys that have shown it. More than anything, I see guys hungry and ready to win. It’s the guys understanding that it’s our time. They’re starting to believe into that more and more every day. I saw a lot of that and guys ready and hungry to play.”
Brewer separates himself at QB
One position Whittingham feels good about is at quarterback, where Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer tightened his grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart coming out of the spring. He’ll compete with Cam Rising for the starting job when the Utes reconvene for practices in August.
Brewer completed 15 of 15 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in the spring game, and had a quarterback rating of 228.6 in one half of play.
The senior QB, who threw for 9,000 yards during his career at Baylor, feels comfortable with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme.
“There’s a good amount that I can still learn,” Brewer said. “But I think throughout spring ball and since the day I got here, it’s been an ongoing process. It’s been really good. It feels like I have a great understanding of the offense.”
The quarterbacks will be protected by a solid offensive line, anchored by center Nick Ford.
Running backs bolstered
At running back, Micah Bernard sits atop of the depth chart and returns from last season. Transfers T.J. Pledger and Chris Curry have been learning Utah’s offense and both impressed during the spring game. Curry ran six times for 44 yards, while Pledger rushed for 31 yards on six carries.
“Those guys showed some good stuff (Saturday). That’s what they’ve been doing all spring long,” Whittingham said. “Between those two and Micah Bernard, we think we’ve got three backs at least that are really going to be top-notch guys and very capable. Then we have Ricky Parks, who’s coming this summer. And you saw Charlie Vincent do some good things in the scrimmage. We think that position is going to be just fine and very productive for us.”
Playmakers at receiver, including a breakout star
At wide receiver, freshman Devaughn Vele was the breakout star of the spring game, catching four passes for 66 yards and a touchdown.
Still, Whittingham has said that his staff is scouring the transfer portal in search of more depth at that spot.
Young but talented defense
Defensively, Utah is expected to be strong once again. Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist last season, is the leader, along with fellow linebacker Nephi Sewell, safety Vonte Davis, defensive linemen Mika Tafua and Maxs Tupai.
In the secondary, the Utes are loaded with plenty of young talent, including cornerbacks Clark Phillips III, JaTravis Broughton, Malone Mataele, Faybian Marks and Zamaiah Vaughn.
“The secondary is doing a nice job. Those guys are all still extremely young and inexperienced, but nobody cares,” Whittingham said. “They’ve got to step up, just like they did last season. Not only the five games last season but that entire fall practice, we were practicing without playing seemingly forever. All those accrued practices really helped that group and, of course, the five games were big for them.”
Special teams stars
As for special teams, Utah placekicker Jadon Redding, who earned Pac-12 all-conference first-team honors last season, is back. He made 17 of 17 PATs and 8 of 8 field goals in 2020, while Covey is one of the nation’s top punt returners.
Jared March is expected to handle punting duties, while Jalen Dixon could be the primary kick returner.
What’s next for the Utes going into fall camp?
Now that spring drills are over, Whittingham and his staff will break down in detail those practices to find ways to limit weaknesses and maximize strengths.
“We’ll take a hard evaluation these next two or three weeks of what transpired in spring ball and evaluate all the film and determine if we need to continue to look through the (transfer) portal and decide what shortcomings we may have,” Whittingham said. “But overall, we came out of spring feeling like we’re a pretty good team. Again, we’ll do the final analysis in the upcoming weeks. We have a lot of tape. We have over 800 reps of team reps, that’s basically a season, that we got done this spring. A lot of film to continue to evaluate and a lot of guys had a lot of opportunity this spring to get better, which we feel they did.”
Utah is done with football activities until June 1, when it will begin summer player development. Until then, players will work out on their own and some will go home. This week, Whittingham and his staff will conduct exit interviews with the players.
“What we expect is them to stay in shape,” Whittingham said. “We need them to hit the ground running on June 1. Summer development is a nine-week period. Then we’ll go into fall camp. That’s the prelude into the season.”
“It’s time to elevate,” Lloyd said of this break. “It’s time to find a way to get better and improve at what you’re not good at, obviously building off of things that we’re already good and maintaining those things.”
The Utes are hoping to build upon the momentum established during the spring.
“We’ve got to get ready for summer conditioning, which is the next phase,” Whittingham said. “It starts in June and that will be a huge part of our success, or lack thereof, depending on how we handle that. It will be important that we attack that summer conditioning program.”
Utah kicks off the 2021 season Sept. 2 at home against Weber State.
Utah’s projected depth chart, 2021
QB: 12 Charlie Brewer — 7 Cam Rising
RB: 2 Micah Bernard — 5 T.J. Pledger
WR: 18 Britain Covey — 25 Jaylen Dixon
WR: 21 Solomon Enis — 10 Money Parks
WR: 17 Devaughn Vele — 1 Caine Savage
TE: 80 Brant Kuithe — 89 Cole Fotheringham
LT: 68 Jaren Kump — 72 Luke Felix-Fualalo
LG: 71 Braeden Daniels — 51 Keaton Bills
C: 55 Nick Ford — 50 Orlando Umana
RG: 78 Sataoa Laumea — 53 Johnny Maea
RT: 69 Simi Moala — 77 Bamidele Olaseni
LE: 42 Mika Tafua — 44 Xavier Carlton
LT: 98 Viane Moala — 90 Devin Kaufusi
RT: 99 Tennessee Pututau — 41 Hauati Pututau
RE: 92 Maxs Tupai — 7 Van Fillinger
RLB: 1 Nephi Sewell — 55 Andrew Mata’afa
MLB: 0 Devin Lloyd — 37 Trey Reynolds
SLB 32 Moroni Anae — 54 Hayden Furey
LC: 4 JaTravis Broughton — 3 Drew Rawls
RC: 8 Clark Phillips III — 23 Faybian Marks
NB: 15 Malone Mataele — 22 Aaron Lowe
FS: 9 Vonte Davis — 10 R.J. Hubert
SS: 13 Kamo’i Latu — 6 Cole Bishop
K: 97 Jadon Redding
P: 33 Jared March
KR: 25 Jaylen Dixon
PR: 18 Britain Covey