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Why Kyle Whittingham sees Utes being in ‘solid position’ heading into 2021 season

The Utes might be equipped to experience a breakthrough this fall with plenty of depth — a bevy of key returning players and several talented newcomers

Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey celebrates a kick return for touchdown.
Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) celebrates a kick return for touchdown with teammates as Utah and Oregon State play a college football game at Rice Eccles stadium in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. Covey was named preseason All-Pac-12 first team as a return specialist and second team as a wide receiver.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — Oregon has won two consecutive Pac-12 championships.

After winning the Pac-12 South in 2018 and 2019, Utah is seeking its first ever Pac-12 crown.

During Tuesday’s Pac-12 Football Media Day, the Ducks were picked to capture league title yet again while the Utes were selected to finish second in the Pac-12 South behind USC in the league’s preseason media poll released Tuesday morning.

Toward the end of the day’s interviews, Utah return specialist/wide receiver Britain Covey said he didn’t know where his team was projected to finish by the media. And he didn’t really care.

“My reaction was, I never even saw the preseason picks, to be honest, and that’s what I like because maybe we were picked, maybe not,” Covey said. “We just try to keep that underdog mentality. I think people see Utah kind of as that blue-collar, chip-on-your-shoulder-type team. Probably because coach (Kyle) Whittingham is that way, right? You never want to fight coach Whittingham. We try to keep that chip on our shoulder mentality. I don’t know who they picked to win. Either way, I’m going to view us as the underdog and work like I’m the underdog. Then when I get to the game, know you’re going to have to come through us.”

The Utes might be equipped to experience a breakthrough this fall and dethrone Oregon because of its depth — a bevy of key returning players and several talented newcomers, like Baylor transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer.

“Feel pretty good about where we’re at as a team. Good depth. Maybe the most depth since we’ve been in the Pac-12. That’s a pretty bold statement,” Whittingham said. “We’ve been in the league 11 years, but we feel like we’ve done a good job recruiting and are in a solid position right now where every position group is solid, like I said, has two or three guys in each spot that we feel good about.”

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd did see the preseason Pac-12 poll, and he wasn’t impressed.

“Preseason rankings is just a matter of opinion. It’s all preseason. Nobody’s proved anything. As soon as last season ends, a brand new team starts the new year, whether it’s the same guys returning or not,” he said. “This is a brand new year for us. We’re going to have to go out and show why we’re the best … Ultimately, it’s on our end, whether or not we’re going to accomplish what we’re going to accomplish.”

In the Pac-12 South, USC received 223 points, including 27 first-place votes ahead of Utah (183, six first-place votes), Arizona State (170, six first-place votes), UCLA (135, one first-place vote), Colorado (88) and Arizona (41). Oregon was the runaway favorite to win the Pac-12 North with 238 points and 38 first-place votes, over second-place Washington, which had 189 points and two first-place votes.

On the 2021 Preseason Pac-12 All-Conference team, also released Tuesday, the Utes led all programs with five first-team selections, as selected by members of the media that cover the league.

The first team featured Lloyd, junior offensive lineman Nick Ford, junior defensive end Mika Tafua, sophomore placekicker Jadon Redding and Covey as a return specialist.

Covey was also named to the second-team offense as a wide receiver. Freshman offensive lineman Sataoa Laumea was included on the second team after earning All-Pac-12 in 2020.

Junior tight end Brant Kuithe, senior defensive lineman Viane Moala, sophomore JaTravis Broughton, freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III and senior snapper Keegan Markgraf were each named to the to the honorable mention team.

Lloyd said he and his teammates discuss amongst themselves how much they want to win a Pac-12 title.

“We talk about that fairly regularly because it is our ultimate goal to get to the Pac-12 championship,” he said. “We’re a team full of winners, guys that know how to win and guys that will do what it takes to win. But we’re living in and focused on the present and do what we have to do to accomplish our goals. … We’re going to have go in day-in and day-out and earn everything that we want to get.”

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal was asked Tuesday about his program having a target on its back after claiming back-to-back Pac-12 crowns.

“I never and we will never see ourselves as a program with a bullseye on us, a target on us. It’s never been that way, never will be that way,” he said. “When we wake up in the morning, our feet hit the ground, we wake up with a hunger, drive, determination to make sure we’re always a hunter in a humble, driven way. All the other stuff, the fluff and the predictions, it doesn’t factor into our regimen, our structure, our DNA, our mentality.”

Like Utah, USC coach Clay Helton wants to guide his team to a Pac-12 title. As usual, expectations are high for the Trojans.

“You can be at USC and win every game but one. If it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season. That’s being at a special place,” Helton said. “So when you’re at a place that’s won 11 national championships, you know the standard of excellence and you know what’s demanded. We welcome that. We welcome it as players, we welcome it as coaches. That’s why we all came to USC.”

Arizona State coach Herm Edwards is expecting another fierce battle in the Pac-12 this season.

“I understand why some teams are ahead of us (in the preseason poll), maybe some teams that should be ahead of us,” he said. “But the two teams that are obviously up there with our whole conference I think is very competitive. That’s what’s great about this conference. The more I’m involved in it, it’s very, very competitive.”