Utah football has long been known for its stellar running game tradition, and for good reason.

The Utes have produced multiple backs over the years that have eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau, including stars that have moved on to the NFL.  

But coach Kyle Whittingham likes to point out that his team has thrown the ball well, too. In both 2018 and 2019, for example, Utah passed for more than 3,000 yards in each of those seasons. 

“So it’s not like we never throw the football,” he said.

“We’ve got to get back to being balanced. In the receivers’ room, we have some good players in there. But we know we took a hit and lost a couple of guys. We’ve got to add at least one more, maybe two, later this spring or summer via the portal most likely. — Kyle Whittingham

During a pandemic-shortened, five-game season in 2020, the Utes relied heavily on their ground game as it dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness at times on the offensive side of the ball. 

“As the season progressed,” Whittingham said, “it became apparent that that was the best thing for us last year.”

But it’s a new season. 

Overall, Whittingham knows what he wants to see from offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s attack this fall. 

“We’ve got to get back to being balanced. In the receivers’ room, we have some good players in there. But we know we took a hit and lost a couple of guys,” he said. “We’ve got to add at least one more, maybe two, later this spring or summer via the portal most likely.

“It’s going to be important that we’re able to throw the ball. It doesn’t matter how good you are at running back if you can’t throw the ball to get rid of some of those seven- eight- nine-man boxes.”

Spring practices are over, and Utah has quarterbacks that the coaching staff is excited about, including Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer, who is No. 1 on the depth chart, and Cam Rising, who earned the starting job going into last season before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the opener.

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Brewer and Rising will battle for the starting role in August. 

During his career at Baylor, Brewer threw for 9,700 yards, No. 2 in Baylor history, and became the second player in school history to eclipse the 10,000-yard mark for total offense in a career with 10,797 yards — including 1,039 rushing yards. Brewer passed for 65 touchdowns and ran for 22 TDs.

But without reliable, play-making receivers, not even the best quarterbacks can produce a successful passing game.

The Utes boast proven pass-catchers like receivers Britain Covey and Solomon Enis and tight end Brant Kuithe. During spring practices, wideouts Devaughn Vele and Money Parks emerged as potential weapons, while Caine Savage was moved from cornerback to wide receiver.

Utah tight end Brant Kuithe celebrates after a catch-and-run as Utah and UCLA play in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Vele is in the No. 4 spot right now. Money Parks has done some good things battling for that No. 5 spot,” Whittingham said. “Caine Savage, who moved from corner, has shown some promise. Those four are clearly at the top.”

During the winter, Utah lost receivers Bryan Thompson (Arizona State) and Samson Nacua (BYU) to the transfer portal.

Whittingham said he and his staff will be active in the transfer portal, looking to add to the talent and depth of the group. 

“We’re planning on adding at least one more receiver via the portal. That will happen in the next couple of months, ideally, so that player can be here on campus for the June workouts,” Whittingham said. “It’s a work in progress, that position group. But they’ve done a nice job this spring. They’ve developed. But we still think we need to add a receiver or two to that group.”

Just prior to spring ball starting, Whittingham hired Chad Bumphis to replace Guy Holliday as the wide receivers coach. 

Whittingham said the receivers have been “very receptive” to Bumphis’ tutelage. 

“A lot of positive feedback. Sometimes change is good — a new face and a new voice,” he explained. “Chad has been very well-received by our players.”

Bumphis is happy with what he’s seen from the receivers. 

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“We’ve got some guys that have played a lot of ball. We have some young guys with some talent. My deal is to get the most out of them, help them understand where they can be successful,” he said. “Coach (Ludwig) does an awesome job of putting guys in position to be successful and playing to the strengths of our offense. Right now, we’re just trying to find those guys on the perimeter who we think going into fall camp can help us. We’re doing a good job right now. They’re working and they’re doing everything I’m asking them to do. It’s about continuing to grow every day.”

As for the run game, Utah has three talented running backs — Micah Bernard, LSU transfer Chris Curry, and Oklahoma transfer T.J. Pledger

Meanwhile, freshman quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson, a transfer from Texas, has been impressive this spring in terms of his ability to run the ball. 

Utah freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson could be a secret weapon for Utah’s offense this season.
Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson runs during the spring game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has liked what he’s seen of him since he joined the program as a transfer from Texas. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Whittingham said Jackson could be part of a wildcat package this season. 

“He’s a tremendous athlete  … whether or not we evolve him into a Ja’Quinden package as a wildcat type of situation remains to be seen,” he said. “We’ll see how things go this fall camp. We believe he has a high ceiling. He’s going to be a really good player as a freshman.

“He’s got a lot of eligibility left. We’re excited about him. He made a lot of progress this spring. If he continues to progress in fall camp like he did in the spring, there very well may be a role for him this fall in that capacity.”

Brewer likes the weapons he has at his disposal. 

“I see a lot of guys that have played a lot of football, a lot of guys that are big-play guys,” he said. “We’ve got a few really good tight ends, some guys on the outside and Covey in the slot. We’re really good at every position. We’ve got some new running backs in. There’s a lot of talent.”

Bottom line, Whittingham is hoping to see balance out of his offense this season — including a dynamic passing game.