On its way to winning the Pac-12 championship, and finishing No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll, Utah had a chink in its armor.
That would be special teams.
The Utes gave up a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the season opener against Weber State, then they surrendered a 100-yard kickoff for a TD a couple of weeks later against San Diego State.
In October, Utah had a punt blocked for a touchdown in a setback at Oregon State, then it happened again at Arizona in November.
Special teams is an issue that’s on the mind of coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff during spring practices.
“We’re working hard on it. It’s something we address every single day,” he said. “We need to have that solved hopefully coming out of spring. If not, we’ll solve it in fall camp. But it’s got to be solved because we weren’t good enough last year.”
Meanwhile, the Utes excelled in punt returns, thanks to Britain Covey, the school’s all-time leader in punt return yardage. For example, his 78-yard punt return for a touchdown just before halftime was a key play in Utah’s 38-7 shellacking of Oregon.
But now that Covey has moved on, having declared for the NFL draft, the Utes need to find a new punt returner for 2022.
LOOKING AT THE LINEBACKERS: With the departure of linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, Utah is trying to find new playmakers at that position.
Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate will help fill that void, though he is limited during spring practices as he recovers from labrum surgery.
But Whittingham likes the young linebackers he’s seeing in the spring.
“The young guys are doing a great job. The guys that just got here from high school — Lander Barton, Justin Medlock, Carson Tabaracci — have really added to that group,” he said. “But I would say the leader right now is Karene Reid of the linebacking crew. We think we’ve got a good group. There’s still not a lot of experience because we lost our two guys that played virtually every snap the past couple of years. But when these guys get up to speed, we should be OK.”
ROSE BLOOMING: Among those in Utah’s deep quarterbacks room is freshman Brandon Rose, a three-star prospect from Murrietta, California, who enrolled early to participate in spring drills.
Rose is benefiting from his early enrollment.
“It is extremely valuable, when you think about how he should still be in high school right now and he’s taking some reps,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “He’s swimming a little bit with some of the install. But the thing that really stands out about him is his arm talent. He’s got good arm strength and good accuracy. He’s still learning to figure out exactly where and when to throw the football.”
BALANCING SCHOLARSHIPS: Because of the pandemic, the NCAA decided to approve a one-year waiver on football scholarships in 2020. Many players have elected to use that COVID-19 season for an extra year of eligibility.
That’s created a challenge for coaches in regard to scholarship numbers.
“You don’t have as many scholarships to give because of it, because of the backlog that was created when they decided not to count a year of eligibility, which was the right decision to make,” Whittingham said. “But you have to be really judicious with scholarships that we commit to. I’m sure we’ll have some transfer portal guys after spring. Right now, we’ve got to see how things shake out. I know we’ve got to have some space open up for fall.”