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Sizing up Utes’ QB room ... and 4 more storylines to follow during spring camp

Despite losing some stars from the 2021 team, there is much optimism the Utes can successfully defend their 2021 Pac-12 title

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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches a replay in the game against Ohio State in the 108th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches a replay in the game against Ohio State in the 108th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

During an emotional and historic 2021 football campaign, Utah captured its first Pac-12 championship and played in the Rose Bowl for the first time. 

What will the Utes do for an encore?

The answer to that question will continue to take shape when Utah opens spring practices on March 22, with the annual spring game scheduled for April 23. 

While the Utes have lost a number of key contributors from their 2021 team that posted a 10-4 record and dropped a heartbreaking 48-45 decision to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, there is plenty of optimism that they could repeat as Pac-12 champs in 2022.

Utah finished No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll in January. The Utes checked in at No. 10 in The Sporting News’ “way-too-early” 2022 preseason poll, one spot behind Pac-12 rival Oregon.

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 have moved on and are preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, but those returning include quarterback Cam Rising, running back Tavion Thomas, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, cornerback Clark Phillips III and safety Cole Bishop

Utah has also added Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, who is expected to step in to help fill the void left by Lloyd. 

After the Rose Bowl, coach Kyle Whittinghamexpressed his enthusiasm about the prospects for the 2022 season. 

“We’re excited about the youth and the talent on this football team,” Whittingham said. “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. 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.”

The Utes benefitted from the 15 practices, especially for the younger players, prior to the Rose Bowl.

Speaking of practices, approval was granted this winter for the school to build a new, $61.8 million indoor practice facility next to the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Facility and the Spence Eccles Field House. It has a tentative completion date for the fall of 2024. 

Here are five storylines to watch going into spring practices:

Stability and continuity at the quarterback position

A year ago, Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer was learning the Utah playbook and was eager to become the starter. He even had a perfect performance in the spring game.

But Brewer left the program after starting the first three games. Rising took over a team with a 1-2 record and he provided a huge spark. He led the Utes to a 9-2 mark as a starter.

Rising completed 204 of 320 passes for 2,493 yards with five interceptions and 20 touchdowns and he ran 74 times for 499 yards and six TDs. 

Utah quarterback Cam Rising evades the tackle of Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell during the Pac-12 championship game.

Utah quarterback Cam Rising evades a tackle during the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. The former Texas Longhorn is among a large contingent of returners this season.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For the first time since 2019, the Utes will have a returning starter at QB.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said what makes Rising so effective is his diligence.

“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,” he said. “He has great ownership, but the way that he is learning to dissect defenses, dissect opponents, and then translate it on game day. 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.”

Behind 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, round out the QB room. 

One of the focuses of spring is the development of those young quarterbacks. 

Additions to the coaching staff

Whittingham returns for his 18th season at the helm of Utah’s program. He’s coming off one of his best coaching performances of his career, guiding the Utes to a Pac-12 title and coping with the tragic deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe

Whittingham deservedly was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Meanwhile, offensive line coach Jim Harding was named 2021 FootballScoop Offensive Line Coach of the Year. 

Since the season ended, there’s been some turnover on Whittingham’s staff. Running backs coach Kiel McDonald left to join USC’s staff and defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha retired.

To replace those two coaches, Whittingham hired two former Ute stars, Quinton Ganther, who was hired as the new running backs coach, and Luther Elliss was hired as the new defensive tackles coach.

“Utah’s always been my dream job. It’s always where I wanted to be because it’s home,” Ganther told the Deseret News. “This is where I went to school. I can sell it; I understand it.”

The return of a proven, bell cow running back

One of the players that Ganther will be working closely with during the spring, of course, is Thomas, a summer transfer who overcame his early-season struggles with fumbling last season to run for 1,108 yards and set a single-season school record with 21 touchdowns.

“Once he started getting some momentum, that made us a lot more physical in the run game,” Whittingham said of Thomas.

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas scores against Ohio State in the 108th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. He’ll be back doing his thing for the Utes in 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Certainly, Thomas’ decision to return to the program was one of the biggest developments of the offseason for the Utes. 

“I have unfinished business here in Utah,” Thomas wrote while explaining his decision to return. “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.”

Ganther said that he sees not only Thomas as a future NFL running back, but he feels the same way about the others in the running backs room — Micah Bernard, Chris Curry and freshman Jaylon Glover, who signed in December and enrolled at Utah in January.

“He’s a great kid,” Ganther said. “He’s going to fit. He works hard. He listens and he asks questions. That’s what you want out of a young guy.”

Glover, from Lakeland, Florida, rushed for more than 6,000 yards and scored 80 touchdowns during his high school career. The 5-foot-7, 205-pounder received the 2021 Florida Dairy Farmers Mr. Football award.

Ganther outlined what he wants to see out of his running backs during the spring. 

“I have to make sure that they understand that I don’t care who or what is on the field, we will be the dominant group,” he said. “We’ll be dominant. We’ll do everything right and we’re going to do things that the NFL looks for as far as the competitive nature, the finishing, the things like that.”

Replacing NFL-bound players, developing youth

Lloyd was a dynamic playmaker on defense for Utah last season and he is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick. 

“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.”

Of course, the Utes will get immediate help from 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. 

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Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate follows a play during game against Alabama, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Gainesville, Fla. Diabate transferred to Utah in the offseason.

Phelan M. Ebenhack, Associated Press

In March, Stanford transfer linebacker Gabe Reid announced that he will play his final season of collegiate eligibility with the Utes, joining his younger brother Karene, who turned in an impressive freshman season for the Utes in 2021 as a walk-on.

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. 

The Utes’ defense will also lose Sewell, Tafua and safety Vonte Davis. 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.”

While the Utes are without 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. 

At a loaded tight end position, Cole Fotheringham has declared for the draft, Kuithe (50 catches, 611 yards, six touchdowns) and Kincaid (36 receptions, 510 yards, eight touchdowns) return. 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’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, 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.

While Phillips leads the secondary, 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 started at cornerback in the Rose Bowl. 

Finding new weapons, leaders

It’s hard to quantify what Covey meant to Utah’s program, which started way back in 2015.

Now that he’s moved on, he leaves a big void in terms of his offensive skills, his ability to change a game on special teams, and as a leader.

“What he’s brought to the program is invaluable, both on and off the field. He’s a great leader and has everybody’s respect in the building — coaches, players, everybody,” Whittingham said. “His personality is infectious and his positive outlook and just the way he comes in every day is uplifting. Players feed off that. In practice, nobody works harder. In games, he’s electric, he’s exciting to watch. He’s meant so much to us. We’re going to hate to see him go.”

Covey is Utah’s all-time leader in career punt return yards (1,092). In his final game as a Ute, Covey, scored Utah’s first touchdown of the game and his first career kickoff return for a TD — a dazzling 97-yard run in the second quarter that gave his team a 28-14 lead in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State.

During spring practices, Utah’s coaching staff will be looking to find new game-changing weapons. They’ll also be looking for new leaders to emerge as they defend their Pac-12 championship.