The Red Rocks are back. Well, almost.

Utah gymnastics put on its annual Red Rocks Preview Friday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, an exhibition showcase in preparation for the upcoming 2023 season, which officially kicks off Jan. 6 with a home meet against the LSU Tigers.

Scores were not kept, and the atmosphere was relaxed, jovial and celebratory, but it was college gymnastics returned to the limelight, if not the competitive scene.

Here are some quick impressions from the night.

These Red Rocks look and feel different

Utah gymnastics is one of the most successful women’s gymnastics programs in the country. That is indisputable. The formula established under Greg Marsden and continued — possibly improved — under Tom Farden has been highly successful and pretty consistent year to year.

Something is changed this year, though. Noticeably. That is the demeanor of this year’s team.

From the outset of Friday night’s showcase, the gymnasts were visibly relaxed and carefree. There was an energy and excitement that was palpably different from previous Utah teams.

The gymnasts feel it.

“Our team this year is so different even though we have a lot of the same routines,” senior Maile O’Keefe said. “The energy is really fun, the team chemistry is really good. I feel good about this year.”

O’Keefe singled out graduate transfer Abby Brenner for the change.

“We have a lot of energy, and I think a lot of that comes from Abby Brenner, our fifth-year (transfer) from Michigan,” O’Keefe said. “She is just a ball of energy, super energetic and positive. I think that helps us a lot.”

To O’Keefe’s point, Brenner was almost always the first gymnast to congratulate a teammate on a completed routine, sometimes sprinting past other gymnasts to be first in line. She was also always on the move, be it bouncing, dancing, cheering or celebrating.

It is clear Brenner’s impact with Utah will go well beyond her actual gymnastics, although she is also expected to be a major contributor on vault and bars.

The Red Rocks are deep. Everywhere.

Last season, Utah was deep on three events — balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars. The Red Rocks lacked depth on vault, however, which came back to haunt them at the national championships.

As of right now — the team is currently largely injury-free — Utah has depth on all four events, a necessity for a national title contender.

The Red Rocks competed eight routines on every event Friday, and they believe they have viable routines beyond that number, with 13 gymnasts competing at least one event (only Cristal Isa and Sarah Krump didn’t perform routines).

“We actually have a lot more depth than that,” O’Keefe said. “We have so much more depth.”

Farden credited internal growth for much of that, such as the return of Jillian Hoffman from season ending injury and Kara Eaker’s improved health (she is training all four events).

Utah took it easy on vault and floor for the most part — that is a regular occurrence in the preseason — but Farden confirmed that the Utes have six vaults currently ready to compete that have a start value of 10.0.

“We have a full slate of six, which is good and something we wanted to accomplish,” he said. “We’ve got six. Will we use six? The No. 1 thing is they’ve got to be safe.”

Farden added that Utah’s deepest lineups are on floor and bars, while beam should remain a significant strength of the team.

Makenna Smith will be an impact freshman

Makenna Smith was the high-profile gymnast in Utah’s 2022 signing class as a 5-star recruit and a Junior Olympic medalist.

It was an exhibition performance on Friday, but Smith was the only Red Rock to compete in the all-around and she excelled throughout the night, showcasing the ability to compete regularly on any and all events.

“You saw what Makenna Smith can do and now you know why I was excited about her,” Farden said. “She is a superior athlete.”

Farden expects Smith to battle for a spot in the all-around this season, which would be a feat considering the caliber of all-around gymnasts Utah boasts, such as O’Keefe, Eaker and Grace McCallum.

“She’s spunky. She doesn’t back down,” Farden said of Smith. “She is on the cusp of being a freshman all-arounder on this team.”

Kara Eaker is healthy and training in the all-around

Eaker missed a significant portion of the 2022 season with a high ankle sprain but returned in time to make a significant impact on Utah’s beam lineup in the postseason.

She is fully healthy now and competed on beam and floor Friday. At the end of her floor routine, Eaker did suffer a scare of sorts, stumbling badly on her final pass, but walked away injury free.

“She got ahead of herself, technically,” Farden said. “You dance a little bigger (in the Huntsman). She’s been great in practice. We haven’t seen that in practice. This is why you do (a Red Rocks Preview), to see what they are like competing in front of thousands of fans.”

Cristal Isa’s injury isn’t serious

Isa, a fifth-year senior, didn’t compete Friday and wore a boot on her left foot, but the apparatus is precautionary.

Isa suffered an ankle sprain during training a few weeks ago, and Utah has operated out of an abundance of caution with her in order for her to be prepared to compete once the season begins.

Athlete empowerment is a real focus at Utah

The modern era of college sports includes NIL — name, image and likeness — and Utah gymnastics takes its role as a trailblazer in women’s sports seriously.

One of the many ways that was on display Friday was with the gymnasts’ leotards.

Each Red Rock designed her own leotard and wore it during the exhibition. Each was unique, often not even Utah colors.

For Farden and company, it was one way to empower Utah’s gymnasts — allow them to build their individual brands in a world in which brand will become more and more important to individual athletes.

“Allowing our athletes to design their leotards, whether it was our colors or personal expression, that is where this is going,” Farden said. “Alani’s (Sabado) was military and Sage’s (Thompson) was related to breast cancer. There were really touching points and a deep connection for the design of their leotards.

“That is where this is all going. This was the first step to allow personal expression because NIL will allow jersey sales and T-shirts sales. It is all coming. We are on the precipice of it and understand that. We are going to support them.”

The Red Rocks genuinely appreciate the focus Utah has placed on NIL and allowing for opportunities for the gymnasts.

“I think it is really cool to inspire young girls and show them everything we can do,” McCallum said. “With all the opportunities we are given, it is an incredible experience and something you shouldn’t pass up.”

Are the Red Rocks improved enough to get over the hump?

The elephant in the room with Utah is the team’s ongoing national championship drought.

There is optimism that the Red Rocks have taken the steps needed to get over the hump, though.

“I feel like we have grown in a couple of areas that were necessary to grow in,” O’Keefe said. “Tom always says that a national championship team doesn’t have one short event.

“Our vault squad this year is killer. Our bars and beam are holding like they were the last couple of years and on floor we are working on our performance quality so we can get that extra boost to where we need to be.”

Utah is ranked No. 3 in the WCGA preseason poll, and the Red Rocks are excited about the recognition.

Still, they know anything can happen during the year.

“I think it is pretty cool,” O’Keefe said, “but things can change. Everybody will come under pressure, and that can help or hurt you.

“We will see where we end up.”