One year ago at this time, it appeared there would not be a football season in the fall for the Pac-12, or for the Utah Utes, due to the pandemic.

As it turned out, the truncated Pac-12 campaign kicked off in November and the Utes played just five games as part of a bizarre season without fans in attendance. 

This week, Utah begins fall camp, and there’s hope that this season will feel more familiar. The Utes open on Sept. 2 at home against Weber State. 

“Excited for the season to get going. Hoping and praying for a normal season. It’s going to be great to get fans back in the stands,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We have a huge home field advantage at Utah. We’ve had 10-plus years of sellouts in a row. We’ve just added a south end zone expansion to the stadium to bring it up about 5,000 or 6,000 more seats. Looking forward to that home field advantage we have at Rice-Eccles.”

What are the keys for the Utes to have a special season? Here’s what Kyle Whittingham thinks

The Utes are looking to continue their pre-pandemic success, having claimed back-to-back Pac-12 South titles in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Utah climbed into the top 10 of the national rankings and was vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Utes finished with an 11-3 record and seven players were selected in the 2020 NFL draft. 

Whittingham likes his team’s attitude, and its depth, heading into 2021. 

“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,” he said. “We’ve been in the league 11 years, but we feel like we’ve done a good job recruiting and are in a position right now where each position group is solid, has two or three guys in each spot that we feel good about.”

Here are five storylines to watch as Utah prepares to start fall camp.

Who will be the starting quarterback? 

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer throws during the Red and White Game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) throws during the Red-White game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When the spring game ended last April, Whittingham said the quarterback race would come down to a competition between Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer, who played in the spring, and Cam Rising, who earned the starting job in 2020 only to be injured early on in the opener. 

Rising underwent shoulder surgery and did not participate in spring drills.

Has the QB battle changed at all since the spring? 

“It has changed because Cam Rising is healthy now. It’s a good problem to have. It’s not like you’re searching for a quarterback. You’re deciding between a few good options,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “The typical answer is always, ‘I don’t exactly know who’s going to be the quarterback.’ I do think it’s important that you decide who your quarterback is earlier than later for that jelling and meshing to happen.

“They’re really good at different things. I’m curious to see how that turns out. There’s definitely a reason why Charlie has over 9,000 career passing yards, and that was evident from day one, when he stepped on campus. It will be interesting to see, but I think that decision will be made earlier than later. I’ve never seen two-quarterback systems work out as well. It’s always helped when you know who your guy is going into the season pretty early on.”

Whittingham likes what he has to work with at QB.

“Charlie’s a senior with a lot of experience under his belt,” Whittingham said. “We have obviously Cam Rising waiting in the wings when fall camp begins. That will put a whole new spin on the quarterback competition.”

Will the running back position be by committee or will someone emerge?

Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2) runs during the Red-White game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Utes have long relied on an explosive run game as part of their offense.

It looked like Utah would be set up for years to come with the emergence of Ty Jordan, who earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors. Jordan died last December, just a week after the season ended. 

During the offseason, the Utes signed a pair of experienced running backs from Power 5 programs — T.J. Pledger from Oklahoma and Chris Curry from Louisiana State. They join Micah Bernard, who is returning. 

‘He’s on our mind all the time’: Ty Jordan’s absence still weighs on Utah football program

“The running back position was rebuilt. Of course, we had the tragic loss of Ty Jordan, which was a huge event in our program, but we were able to add T.J. Pledger from Oklahoma, Chris Curry from LSU, we have Micah Bernard returning,” Whittingham said.

“Going in, there’s going to be equal footing for three or four of the running backs. If one emerges as the top guy, we’ll make the adjustment. If each one brings something to the table, then we’ll make the best of that situation as well. Right now there is no leading candidate to be the primary ball carrier, so we’ll see how that evolves.”

How much will the young defense improve from last season?

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd sacks Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan during game at Rice-Eccles stadium in Salt Lake City.
Oregon State Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan (10) reaches for the ball as he is sacked by Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) as Utah and Oregon State play a college football game at Rice-Eccles stadium in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. Utah won 30-24. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Going into the 2020 season, the Utes had nine new starters on defense. In the five games that Utah played, its young players, including cornerback Clark Phillips, received valuable experience. Almost everybody from last year’s defense returns. 

Utah’s defensive line is led by Mika Tafua, and the defense boasts a star linebacker in Devin Lloyd

“Those five games were very good for the young guys, especially the ones that were playing for the first time and starting. It gave them more confidence and more freedom to feel OK making mistakes and being about to bounce back,” Lloyd said. “It gave them the opportunity to get their feet wet and more game experience.

“This offseason has allowed everyone to grow closer together defensively, just building that camaraderie and allowing everybody to get physically more in shape. Guys are going to come back in the best shape of their lives all across the board. The combination of those two has definitely helped us this offseason.”

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Lloyd said the defense is “very confident” about how it will fare this season. 

”The majority of our guys are returning, and experience is invaluable,” he said. “That provides more confidence as a team. You still have to earn everything that you get.”

Lloyd added that the defense has improved since the spring. 

“I would say guys are a lot more athletic based on the explosive workouts that we’re doing. There’s more physical development that will be noticeable on the field,” he said. “From a mental standpoint, guys are more focused on the ultimate goal. The young guys are more bought in. We have our veterans still trying to lead. As a team, we’re collectively buying in on the same goal.”

What kind of impact will the additions from Power 5 teams through the transfer portal make?

Oklahoma running back T.J. Pledger (5) carries past Kansas defensive lineman Malcolm Lee (99) during an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. | Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

No doubt, Utah has improved itself considerably thanks to the transfer portal. The Utes have added experience and depth with players like Brewer, Pledger and Curry, and others. 

Those additions are expected to make a big impact. 

“The transfer portal is your free agents. If you have an immediate need, if you lose a guy or two in the transfer portal at a certain position group, you need to supplement what you have, those are guys that are expected to come in and help immediately. They’re not developmental guys, not guys that are going to come in and develop for two years. Most of them only have one year left,” Whittingham said.

How Utes filled key spots with ‘an incredible’ bevy of Power Five players via transfer portal

“That’s something where if you have an immediate need, unforeseen circumstances arise, you go to the portal. For us, we’ve lost two or three guys in the portal, but we’ve gained far more than we lost. I know the net result for us at Utah through the portal has been a plus. We’re on the plus side of that ledger.”

How deep, and how productive, will the wide receiver room be?

Utah receiver Jaylen Dixon pulls in a pass while warming up before last season’s game against Arizona State. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

There’s been some concern about the Utes’ wide receivers room after they lost Bryan Thompson (Arizona State) and Samson Nacua (BYU) to the transfer portal during the offseason. Then longtime receivers coach Guy Holliday was let go.

Whittingham hired Chad Bumphis as wide receivers coach just before the start of spring ball, and in May, Utah added Oklahoma transfer Theo Howard

The Utes return Covey, Solomon Enis and Jaylen Dixon, plus Devaughn Vele emerged during the spring. 

“Here’s what I’d say about this wide receiver group — we’ve got a lot of guys that aren’t as experienced but I’ve never seen this amount of depth,” Covey said. “We run 11 personnel (running back and tight end) most of the time with three receivers. If you can get six to eight guys in your room where there’s no drop off between the one and two, I think you’ll have a great group.

“That’s what we have this year. We have six to eight guys that are competing for the starting job, and when the starters need a rest, there’s no drop off.”