As a sign of solidarity, dedication and confidence after a frustrating, truncated 2020 COVID-19-impacted season, all of Utah’s players that could have declared for the NFL draft decided to return for at least one more campaign.
The mission? To bring home the school’s first Pac-12 championship and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
That mission became even more poignant after two Utes, running back Ty Jordan and cornerback Aaron Lowe, lost their lives within nine months of each other.
The Utes fell 48-45 to Ohio State in “The Granddaddy of Them All” on New Year’s Day in Pasadena in heartbreaking fashion.
But the Utes are built to capture another Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl berth.
On Tuesday, Utah checked in at No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll. In its “way-too-early” 2022 preseason poll, The Sporting News had the Utes at No. 10 nationally, one spot behind No. 9 Oregon of the Pac-12.
Of course, USC’s bold move in hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma should make the underachieving Trojans a contender for the South Division crown. USC has plenty of talent. How quickly will the Trojans put it together?
As for Utah, despite losing a number of stars and key players from the 2021 squad, including All-America linebacker Devin Lloyd, wide receiver/return specialist Britain Covey, linebacker Nephi Sewell, defensive lineman Mika Tafua, offensive lineman Nick Ford and running back T.J. Pledger, who have all declared for the 2022 NFL draft, Utah has plenty of experienced and talented players returning.
Among those coming back are quarterback Cam Rising, running back Tavion Thomas, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, running back Micah Bernard, cornerback Clark Phillips III and safety Cole Bishop.
And expect the Utes to once again add players via the transfer portal. They’ve already signed linebacker Mohamoud Diabate from Florida.
Utah, meanwhile, has put together some impressive recruiting classes the last few seasons.
“We’re excited about the youth and the talent on this football team. We went through the roster the other day, and it was 72 of our 85 scholarship guys are scheduled to be freshmen or sophomores again. We were almost in the same boat as this year. Many, many of those guys are playing for us already, particularly on defense,” coach Kyle Whittingham said after the Rose Bowl. “We’re optimistic about the future.
“Can we repeat? I think it’s too early to talk about any of that right now. We do like the level of talent, particularly the young talent on this football team. Looking forward to working with them starting this winter.”
Even before winter workouts, the Utes benefitted from the 15 practices prior to the Rose Bowl, particularly the younger players.
Here’s a look back at the 2021 season — and ahead to 2022.
It appears that most of Utah’s staff will remain intact going into next fall. The Utes lost their running backs coach, Kiel McDonald, who has joined Riley’s staff at USC, while defensive defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha has announced this week that he is retiring from coaching.
Whittingham, who will be entering his 18th season at the helm, may have turned in the best coaching performance of his career — not only guiding the Utes to their first Pac-12 title but doing it while the deaths of two promising athletes rocked the program.
For his efforts, Whittingham was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and deservedly so.
Meanwhile, offensive line coach Jim Harding was named 2021 FootballScoop Offensive Line Coach of the Year.
The Utes will continue to benefit from the consistency and steadiness on the coaching staff.
Utah’s offense underwent a dynamic transformation early in the season with Rising taking the snaps, replacing Charlie Brewer, who entered the transfer portal after the San Diego State loss.
From his season debut, rallying the Utes against San Diego State in what turned out to be a triple-overtime loss, Rising proved that he was the alpha dog of the offense. He helped lead Utah to nine more victories.
“Thought we needed a spark, made the change, put Cam Rising in the game, provided the spark immediately, brought us all the way back to triple overtime,” Whittingham said. “We ended up obviously losing the game, but it was very apparent that he was what we needed. He proceeded to start the rest of the season and just got better and better as the weeks went on.”
The Utes finished No. 40 nationally in total offense (431.1 yards per game) and No. 14 in scoring offense (36.1 points per game).
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig deserves credit for putting together an offensive attack that fit Rising’s skill set.
Rising completed 204 of 320 passes for 2,493 yards with five interceptions and 20 touchdowns and ran 74 times for 499 yards and six TDs.
What made Rising so effective?
“I think the biggest thing is the way he prepares, the way he works day-in and day-out in terms of film study. There’s no question that his system knowledge of what we’re doing is beyond reproach, more than any coach, myself included, in the program,” Ludwig said. “He has great ownership, but the way that he is learning to dissect defenses, dissect opponents, and then translate it on game day, I saw this exact look on film, and there’s no hesitation and no doubt in his mind. That to me has been one of the most pleasant, enjoyable things to watch with his development as a preparer for the football game.”
Utah appears to be well-stocked at the QB position with Rising, Ja’Quinden Jackson, improbable Rose Bowl hero Bryson Barnes and incoming freshmen Nate Johnson, a four-star recruit from Clovis, California, and Brandon Rose out of Murrieta, California.
Peter Costelli, a four-star quarterback that signed in 2021, opted to enter the transfer portal, but there’s no shortage of talent at that spot.
At running back, Thomas had his early-season struggles with fumbles. But after he established ball security, he became one of the most dangerous running backs in the Pac-12. Thomas ran for 1,108 yards on 204 attempts and scored a Utah record 21 touchdowns in a single season.
“Once he started getting some momentum, that made us a lot more physical in the run game,” Whittingham said.
Thomas’ decision to return was big news for the Utes.
“I have unfinished business here in Utah,” Thomas wrote last week. “It’s important to me that I get my degree, and show kids where I’m from that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Bernard is another proven back that will provide depth.
Joining the Utes is three-star running back Jaylon Glover from Lakeland, Florida, where he rushed for more than 6,000 yards and scored 80 touchdowns. The 5-foot-7, 205-pounder received the 2021 Florida Dairy Farmers Mr. Football award on Monday.
“Just a tremendous player,” Whittingham said of Glover.
Of course, neither Rising nor Thomas would have been successful without the significant improvement from the offensive line.
“Once we got that position settled in or that group of five settled in and playing well together, that certainly helped our cause,” Whittingham said.
While the Utes will lose Ford and Bamidele Olaseni on the O-line, Braeden Daniels, Keaton Bills, Sataoa Laumea and Jaren Kump are among those that will return.
At receiver, Covey will be missed but Solomon Enis, Devaughn Vele, Money Parks and Connor O’Toole will be among those vying for playing time.
The Utes are loaded at tight end. Although Cole Fotheringham has declared for the draft, Kuithe (50 catches, 611 yards, six touchdowns) and Kincaid (36 receptions, 510 yards, eight touchdowns) will be back. Thomas Yassmin is another tight end with a big upside and Utah added a pair of tight ends via the transfer portal — Landon Morris (Syracuse) and Logan Kendall (Idaho).
Utah finished No. 27 nationally in total defense (341.6 yards per game), No. 35 in scoring defense (22.6 points per game) and No. 19 in rushing defense (119.4 yards per game).
Lloyd, an All-America selection and Butkus Award finalist, is expected to be a first-round NFL pick in the spring.
“Devin is a special football player. He’s the best defender that’s ever come through the University of Utah, at least in the modern era,” Whittingham said. “He’s going to be, most likely, the highest drafted defensive player that we’ve had.”
The Utes’ defense will also lose Sewell, Tafua and safety Vonte Davis. Defensive lineman Xavier Carlton, meanwhile, has reportedly entered the transfer portal.
But the vast majority of the defense returns.
“We have a lot of freshmen that start. I think we have eight or nine on the field at a time during some portions of the game,” Whittingham said. “Just to watch those guys grow up and get better and better week after week, that was probably the other thing that allowed us to finish the way we did.”
Utah’s youth movement on defense will pay dividends for years to come, with Phillips, a right cornerback, and Bishop, a strong safety; defensive linemen Junior Tafuna, Van Fillinger, Jonah Elliss and Michael Mokofisi; linebackers Hayden Furey, Karene Reid, Josh Calvert, Ethan Calvert and Trey Reynolds; nickelback Malone Mataele, cornerbacks JaTravis Broughton, Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn.
Tafuna was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He started the final 10 games of the season and became the first Ute to win this award. He recorded 4.5 sacks, second-most among Pac-12 freshmen, and had a career-high nine tackles at Arizona, the most by a Utah defensive lineman since 2018.
“He’s a guy that keeps getting better every day,” Lloyd said of Tafuna. “His passion for the game is unmatched. It’s a pleasure to see him continue to progress. I’m really glad to see his hard work come to fruition.”
Phillips arrived at Utah before the 2020 season as the highest ranked recruit in school history and he earned Pac-12 All-Conference second team honors.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said the success of Utah’s defense stems from the culture.
“Coach Whittingham’s whole philosophy in our program is recruit, develop and manage,” he said. “So you’ve got to recruit the people in your program that you feel will be a good fit, No. 2 has the skill set that you can develop into a Pac-12 player, and then just take care of them. Give them the tools they need to succeed, teach, hold them accountable. It’s a Kyle Whittingham deal.”
Certainly, the Utes will need to improve when it comes to pass defense. Utah surrendered 573 passing yards against Ohio State, though it was shorthanded in the secondary with Broughton, Marks and Vaughn having suffered season-ending injuries. The Utes were so thin in the defensive secondary, Bernard, a running back, started at cornerback in the Rose Bowl.
At linebacker, Utah will get immediate help with Diabate, who was Florida’s leading tackler in 2021. He tallied 89 tackles, with 2.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. During his career, Diabate played in 37 games and made 176 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and had an interception.
The Utes also signed four-star linebacker Lander Barton, the younger brother of Cody and Jackson Barton, who both played at Utah. Justin Medlock is another highly regarded linebacker prospect.
Whittingham called Barton and Medlock “the best linebackers in the West, maybe in the country.”
Two more players, defensive end Keanu Tanuvasa and defensive back Sione Vaki, have returned from two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lloyd said there’s a longstanding formula in place for Utah’s defense.
“I think coach Scalley does a great job of first setting the culture, and then I think everyone on the team is really just bought in,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys, and ever since they came in all they did was work. Then us as leaders, who have been here prior years, we just set the example every day and we make sure that they follow.”
Covey’s contributions as a kick and punt returner are something not easily replaced. Beyond that, what Covey has brought to the program isn’t easily replicated, either.
“Just his consistent leadership that he’s brought to the football team, his attitude, his personality is just infectious amongst his teammates. One of the best leaders that’s ever come through the University of Utah,” Whittingham said. “Tremendous player obviously on the field as well. He’s done so much for us as a slot receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner. So he’s just meant so much to our program for the last 12 years or however long he’s been here.”
Utah’s kicking game was an adventure at times with placekickers Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyce. Also, the Utes had a punt blocked that played a key role in their loss at Oregon State and they gave up a couple of kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Those are issues Utah will have to shore up going into 2022.
The Utes open the 2022 season on Sept. 3 at Florida against a program with a new head coach, Billy Napier.
While Utah won’t have an opportunity to avenge its 2021 loss at BYU — the Cougars won’t appear on the schedule again until 2024 — it does have a chance to avenge the triple-overtime loss to San Diego State. The Utes’ other nonconference game is against Southern Utah.
Utah’s defense of its Pac-12 title will begin at Arizona State on Sept. 24 and it will also face UCLA, Washington State, Oregon and Colorado on the road. The Utes host Oregon State, USC, Arizona and Stanford, with a bye week coming on Oct. 22.