On Utah’s first day of fall camp Wednesday, coach Kyle Whittingham was thrilled to look ahead to a brand new season.
But he couldn’t help but look back, too.
“It went good,” Whittingham said after his team’s first practice. “It was good just to be out there and not have masks and all that stuff we dealt with over the past year. It was a spirited practice as you’d expect on Day One.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are back from injuries that appear to be all the way back and healthy, (quarterback) Cam Rising being one of those guys,” he added. “A lot of positive things but we have a lot of work to do. We have 24 practices to get it done in. We have our work cut out for us.”
Asked about the veteran leaders on the roster, Whittingham mentioned linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell; center Nick Ford; wide receivers Britain Covey and Solomon Enis; quarterbacks Rising and Charlie Brewer, linebacker Nephi Sewell, defensive lineman Mika Tafua; tight ends Brant Kuithe, Cole Fotheringham and Dalton Kincaid.
“We have no shortage of leadership on this team,” he said. “This feels a lot like the ‘19 team in a lot of regards.”
That 2019 team, of course, climbed into the Top 10 rankings and captured the Pac-12 South Division championship.
Brewer, who is competing with Rising for the starting QB job, was leading Baylor to a Sugar Bowl berth in 2019. But when he was told that Whittingham compared this team to Utah’s ‘19 squad, he embraced the comparison.
“We have a very talented team and we have a very high potential. But we have to reach that,” Brewer said. “That’s throughout fall camp, from week to week. That’s day by day, really. If we take care of business each and every day, we’ll have a really good season for sure.”
“We have no shortage of leadership on this team. This feels a lot like the ‘19 team in a lot of regards.” — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
While the Utes return a bevy of experienced players in 2021, Whittingham confirmed Wednesday that one of the veterans won’t be available this season — defensive lineman Maxs Tupai.
“It doesn’t look like Maxs will be with us this year. That’s unfortunate. We’ll miss him. But he’s not going to be with us as far as playing for us,” Whittingham said. “Everybody’s here but Maxs. We had an inclination for a while now that he wasn’t going to be with us. Everyone else made their grades. Whatever they had to do to get here, they’re here and practicing today.”
With Tupai out, Whittingham said younger defensive linemen like Xavier Carlton and Van Fillinger are ready to step up.
“They had good experience last year. Even though they are true freshmen on the roster, they’re not true freshman experience-wise,” Whittingham said.
Meanwhile, Whittingham said he liked what he saw Wednesday from Rising, who was injured in last year’s opener in November and underwent shoulder surgery.
“He’s 100%. He looked great today,” Whittingham said. “Looked like his old self. I detected no lack of arm strength. He took every rep he was supposed to take.”
“Day One went well,” Rising said. “It was just a great building stone for a great season.”
Brewer said the first day of practice showed what he and his teammates have to work on.
“Obviously, a lot of room for improvement. But for a starting point, I think it went pretty well,” he said. “From here on, it’s about getting better each day. I think we’re on the right track.”
What did Covey think about Wednesday’s practice?
“What I liked about Day One was, we weren’t that sloppy. The biggest thing today was getting into football shape,” he said. “Guys carried over a lot from the spring. That was encouraging to see.”
What asked about Whittingham’s assessment comparing the 2019 team to 2021, Covey agreed.
“It’s really similar. The commonalities between those teams is you have a veteran leader at every position group, at least one. That’s really important. At most position groups, you have two,” he said. “I love the idea that the best teams are player-led, not coach-led. It comes off differently coming from players than from coaches. I agree that there are a lot of similarities. I think we still need to find an identity, like that team had. But that’s what fall camp is for.”