Among the overriding themes of No. 24 Utah’s recently completed fall camp was the comparison between the 2021 team and the 2019 version.

Coach Kyle Whittingham brought it up himself on Day 1, in part because of the bevy of returning players and their leadership abilities.

That 2019 team is regarded as one of the best in school history. The Utes were led by quarterback Tyler Huntley, running back Zack Moss, and defensive linemen Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini. To name a few. 

Utah won 11 games, captured the Pac-12 South Division title, climbed as high as No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings and had seven players selected in the 2020 NFL draft. 

Comparing the 2021 team to the 2019 team is not a small thing, especially when it’s coming from Whittingham, who isn’t prone to hyperbole.

“It’s leadership, it’s depth, it’s talent. We had a very talented team (in 2019). We had (seven) guys drafted off of that team,” Whittingham said. “My guess is that this year we’ll have the same production in the draft with this group. It’s not exactly like that team. Every team has its own personality and its own way of going about their business. But there are a lot of similarities.”

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A couple of weeks into this fall camp, Whittingham was asked if he still felt that way about this team.

“I 100% stand by that,” he said. “That’s the mark of a team that has a chance to be really good when it’s governed from within and the players take ownership and our upperclassmen have definitely done that.”

Whittingham is at ease with heaping this type of high expectations on the 2021 squad because he trusts the players to do their jobs and avoid distractions. 

“That’s always a conversation. Blocking out the noise and just being concerned with us right now, improving as an individual and improving as a team,” he said. “We don’t focus or talk about where we’re ranked or anything like that at all.

“We do expect, and we have the goal, of winning the Pac-12. That’s an expectation we’ve placed on ourselves. But as far as where we’re ranked in the top 25, or where we’re expected to finish in the Pac-12, we pay no attention to that.” — Kyle Whittingham

“We do expect, and we have the goal, of winning the Pac-12. That’s an expectation we’ve placed on ourselves. But as far as where we’re ranked in the top 25, or where we’re expected to finish in the Pac-12, we pay no attention to that.”

Star linebacker Devin Lloyd returned for one more season with the Utes, in part, because of this team’s potential. 

Lloyd said the comparisons between 2019 and 2021 make sense because of “the chemistry of the team and the experience.

“A lot of guys are returning,” he continued. “You can say that for just about every team in the Pac-12. But more so, the willingness to want to be great. There’s a championship mentality within all position groups of this team. Everybody understands the goal and how to get to that goal.

“We’ve all been to the championship so we know what it takes to get there. It’s just the mentality that every position group has. We want to be relentless and we want to win. It’s rare and this team has it.”

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) leads the Utes onto the field before the start of a game against Arizona State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Of course, Lloyd remembers how that special ’19 season ended, with losses to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game and to Texas in the Alamo Bowl. 

“It feels even more annoying that we didn’t get the job done,” Lloyd said. “It’s understanding that we can get there and in due time we will. At the same time, you have to take it day by day. But we know what it takes. It’s understanding that we have to finish.”

Center Nick Ford has also noticed similarities between the 2019 and 2021 teams.

“In every room there’s a leader. Not only that, the young guys are starting to understand that they can lead each other and build from the bottom up because we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” he said. “It’s the mentality we have every day. … Physicality is what coach Whitt preaches and it is what will be received every Saturday to whoever we play.”

“We have a special group of guys. The O line’s all back. The defense is great. The tight ends are the best we’ve ever seen,” said tight end Brant Kuithe. “We have a stacked wide receiver room. The quarterbacks can throw the ball and we have a ton of running backs. This year is going to be special. We just need to put it together.”

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Though the Utes checked in at No. 24 in the preseason rankings, Kuithe doesn’t put much stock in the polls. 

“We’ve got to get better because No. 24 is not good enough,” he said. “I try not to look at rankings because everyone’s going to be in a different position by the end of the season. It’s not a big focus.”

Freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III wasn’t on the 2019 team but he understands the expectations. According to Phillips, after a practice early on in camp, Lloyd addressed his teammates saying, “National championship is our goal. We expect to win everything this year.”

Even with so many starters returning, the Utes also added experienced players from the transfer portal, like running backs T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma) and Chris Curry (Louisiana State) and safety Brandon McKinney (Washington).

McKinney has played in the Rose Bowl while Curry won a national championship at LSU. 

“My teammates ask me about (winning a national championship) and I try to tell them what it’s like,” Curry said. “They ask me, ‘Do you have a ring?’ I say, ‘You know I’ve got a ring.’ I want to make sure everybody has a ring.”

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Still, since winning 11 of its first 12 games in 2019, the Utes are 3-4 in their last seven games, including a 3-2 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. 

“Ending 3-2 last year left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to end my college career off a 3-2 season,” Kuithe said. “I knew coming back we had a lot of special guys and what we could do. I’m excited for what’s to come.”

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said one difference between the 2019 team and this team is that while Huntley led the ’19 squad, there’s been a quarterback battle between Charlie Brewer and Cam Rising this time. 

“Different QBs. We have about 500 plays in the playbook. It’s a sliding scale,” Ludwig said. “We’re going to make sure that what we do fits the quarterback position and the supporting cast around him.”

Defensively, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley sees similarities between ’19 on ’21, with one big exception. 

“I definitely see it in the leadership. I definitely see it in the front seven. The secondary is still untested. That’s the question mark, right there,” he said. “You’re talking about a pretty darn good secondary with (Julian) Blackmon, (Terrell) Burgess and Jaylon Johnson. These guys haven’t proven anything yet other than they’re willing and they’re athletic enough. We’re excited about them. But they’re still untested.”

Wide receiver Britain Covey said this 2021 team has the ingredients to achieve greatness. 

“There’s got to be a leader in every position group for it to be similar to that team. I think that’s kind of what we have here,” he said. “You could go through every position group and name a veteran leader that’s bought into the team and the classic Whittingham mentality. I think that’s what’s similar to the 2019 team. It’s too early to speak on how you’ll perform. But you can speak on the players and that’s what I have confidence in.”

The Utes are hoping for another 2019-like season — except with a much more favorable ending, including a first-ever Pac-12 championship. 

“We’re trying surpass what we did in 2019,” said wide receiver Solomon Enis.