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A tough act to follow? Why Utes could be up to the task

Utah prepares defense of its Pac-12 football championship this week with the opening of spring camp

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Utah’s Micah Bernard runs against Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman during Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1, 2022.

Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard runs against Ohio State Buckeyes safety Ronnie Hickman (14) during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The University of Utah opens spring football practice this week, which means this is a good time to ask the obvious question.

What can they do for an encore?

Talk about a tough act to follow.

The 2021-22 season wasn’t perfect — the first few weeks were a hot mess — but the ending provided some of the greatest moments in the history of Utah sports. Eleven years after joining the league, the Utes won the Pac-12 championship and not only advanced to the Rose Bowl, but came within nine seconds and one field goal of winning it. Utah finished 10th and 11th in the two national polls.

Not many “outsiders” — the few schools allowed to join the league beyond its traditional members — have done so well. After joining the league in 1978, it took Arizona State nine years to win a title and Arizona 16 (tie), and Colorado, which joined the league with Utah in 2011, still hasn’t won a title. 

No one saw Utah’s success coming, especially after being unranked for six weeks. This year the Utes will have the burden of high expectations. They return 17 starters from last season — and 72 of their 85 scholarship players from a year ago, most of them underclassmen (a gift of the extra COVID-19 season). The Utes started 22 different players on defense last season and 13 of them return (including nine underclassmen).

“We’re optimistic about the future,” coach Kyle Whittingham has stated.

Why wouldn’t he be?

On the other hand, the Utes, who have won the Pac-12 South Division title three of the last four years, have a new challenger in their division. USC, the sleeping giant, has awakened, or so it would seem. The Trojans hired head coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, and he brought star quarterback Caleb Williams with him. Just like that, the Trojans appear to be back in business.

But back to the Utes. 

One of the storylines entering spring camp is the competition for the backup quarterback role. If that’s your biggest problem, then you’re in good shape. Cam Rising, whose battlefield promotion to starting quarterback last season coincided with the team’s rise, is back. But the backup quarterback position actually is important — hardly a season goes by that he doesn’t wind up starting a game or two because of injuries to the starter.

The Utes had to call on Bryson Barnes, a freshman who was raised on a pig farm near tiny Milford (population 1,700), late in the Rose Bowl after Rising was knocked out of the game with a concussion. He threw the first two passes of his college career on college football’s biggest stage and both were complete, including a 15-yarder for a game-tying touchdown. He will be challenged for the backup role by Brandon Rose, a freshman from California, and veteran Ja’Quinden Jackson. Those three have combined to throw just eight passes at the college level.

Along with the return of Rising, the best news of the offseason was the return of running back Tavion Thomas, who elected not to declare for the draft, as fellow running back T.J. Pledger (694 yards) chose to do. The transfer from Cincinnati overcame fumble issues to rush for 1,108 yards and a school-record 21 touchdowns. He was named first team All-Pac 12 and ranked third in the nation in rushing.

Running the ball is what the Utes do best and they should be able to continue that trend next season. Micah Bernard, who produced two 100-yard games last season, and newcomer Jaylon Glover, a four-star player from Florida, give the Utes quality depth in the backfield. No matter what happens from year to year, the Utes always seem to find a good running back — in recent years, Joe Williams, Devontae Booker, Zack Moss and Thomas. Thomas could join Booker and Moss in the NFL.

The Utes didn’t lose many key players from last season, but two of them were star performers — receiver Britain Covey and linebacker Devin Lloyd. Both declared for the draft. Lloyd is expected to be drafted in the first round.

Like everyone else in the college game, the Utes searched the transfer portal for veteran players and among those newcomers are Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, Syracuse tight end Landon Morris and Idaho tight end Logan Kendall. 

The bottom line is that the Utes will carry a lot of optimism into the start of this week’s spring practice season.