‘That championship is not ours’: Five storylines to follow as Utes begin defense of Pac-12 title
Utah will need to hit the ground running when it opens the season in SEC country. Here’s what else you need to know about this year’s team
On the heels of one of the most memorable seasons in Utah football history, the Utes are set to make more memories in 2022.
In 2021, Utah won its first Pac-12 championship and played in its first Rose Bowl, falling to Ohio State in a classic contest. The Utes finished with a 10-4 record and ended up No. 12 in the final Associated Press rankings.
Utah is picked to repeat as Pac-12 champions and are even considered to be a contender for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The Utes embrace those expectations of winning another Pac-12 title and getting to the CFP.
“That’s what our goal is,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “We’ve got to make sure to take it one week at a time and work and hopefully all the pieces fall into place.”
Because coach Kyle Whittingham is at the helm, there’s no chance for complacency from this program — particularly with a season-opener at Florida on Sept. 3. There will be no easing into the 2022 season.
“I think the coaches have been hitting it on the head. We’ve got to be attacking this thing just like we did last year,” Rising said. “That championship is not ours. We have to make sure we put our best foot forward each and every day.”
“It’s the coaches, it’s the culture. That’s one of the biggest things that we preach in the locker room,” said cornerback Clark Phillips III. “Who are we as a team? We try to be tough, we try to be nasty and physical. Those are some of the things that make us as Utes. We keep that going and we don’t get complacent.”
With the Utes opening fall camp Wednesday, here are five storylines to watch heading into the 2022 campaign:
Florida game as a motivator
As if Utah needed any added motivation for the season, it is traveling to The Swamp for a showdown against the Florida Gators of the SEC.
That’s something that has been on the Utes’ minds throughout the offseason.
“One thing it does is it gets your players’ attention as far as their preparation. We’ve seen it starting in January that these guys have been working their tails off getting ready for this game,” Whittingham said. “Carried into spring ball, summer conditioning. When you have an opener like that, like we said, we have to be able to hit the ground running. Our guys are aware of that. It certainly makes the focus and the work ethic in the offseason a very easy thing to achieve because of the opening opponent.”
Athletic director Mark Harlan has noticed the same.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students to play in a game like that, to go to the South, and play the Gators. It’s a historic stadium. And for the Florida to come West, which is rare for them, the following year, will be very exciting for the programs as well,” he said. “I know in talking to our players, there’s certainly an extra jump in their step as they prepare for a game like that and enter camp.
“It’s a win-win for everybody. As the Florida athletic director and I have joked, I wasn’t transparent with him four years ago that we’d be coming off a Rose Bowl with 18 returning starters. Nonetheless, it should be a great game.”
“It’s special. It’s our first game of the season so I guess it’s something we look forward to and we’re grateful for it,” Phillips said. “I know a lot of people are going to be excited to watch that matchup. It’s the SEC. A lot of people respect them. We’ll be able to show them what we can do, too.”
Lessons learned from the Rose Bowl
Last New Year’s Day, the Utes’ depleted secondary — due to injuries, they started running back Micah Bernard at cornerback — was torched by Ohio State’s offense to the tune of 573 passing yards and six touchdowns.
That performance has haunted Utah’s defense ever since.
“It was a learning experience for us. Everybody saw that game. One of the things that stuck with me was, everyone said that was an entertaining game,” Phillips said. “Being a defensive player, you don’t want to be part of an entertaining game. That means a lot of touchdowns were scored. It was tough to see that on every headline.
“But to my room, what I preached is, it happened. That’s a learning experience. How do we grow from it? How is this going to set us up for next year? How is this going to make us a better DB room? A better defense? Our mindset was more of like, ‘Let’s play. Next man up.’”
The Utes are hopeful to be healthy in the secondary going into the season, with Phillips, JaTravis Broughton, Faybian Marks, Malone Mataele and Zemaiah Vaughn returning.
At safety, Cole Bishop and R.J. Hubert are back as well.
Overall, playing in the Rose Bowl made a big impact on the program.
“It was a great national stage for our team obviously to be able to be in that game and have that exposure. The game itself was terrific. Didn’t come out on the right end of it, but something I’m positive all the fans enjoyed, the ratings were really good, all that stuff,” Whittingham said. “For our program, it signified the next step in the evolution of our program, winning the Pac-12.
“We’d been to the championship game, that was the third time last year. We had been denied the first two times, so it was good to get over that hump. We certainly felt the effects of that game in recruiting, still feeling the effects of that. Off to a good start with our ’23 class. All good except for the outcome of the game, but a lot of positives.”
Undisputed starter at quarterback
For the first time since 2019, there will be no fall camp battles for the starting quarterback position.
The Utes have their starter.
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 last season.
A year ago, Rising lost a close competition with Charlie Brewer but he ended up replacing Brewer as the starter and it changed the complexion of the season.
“Cam is a terrific player. He’s first team All-Pac-12. Also, he provided an instant spark, immediate spark, when we inserted him into the game, the San Diego State game, he got his first opportunity. He never looked back,” Whittingham said. “Cam means so much to our football team. Off the field he’s the leader of the leaders, the alpha dog of our team, really sets the standard. You couldn’t ask for a better leader. He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.”
How will the Utes fare in the trenches?
Utah lost several key players on the offensive line, like center Nick Ford and Bamidele Olaseni, and one of the main priorities during fall camp is to shore up the O-line, which includes left tackle Braeden Daniels.
Whittingham is optimistic that the defense will continue to produce.
“We’ve had a reputation, backed up by statistics, defensively, to be pretty stubborn, particularly against the run. Philosophically, I’m a defensive coordinator by trade. That was always my philosophy: You play great defense by first stopping the run. Everything we do in our system is geared toward stopping the run, putting teams in long-yardage situations, getting after the quarterback,” Whittingham said. “We’ve been blessed with really good players. Put a bunch of guys in the NFL from our front seven through the years.
“It all rolls back to recruiting. Recruiting is really the lifeblood of your program. Eighty percent of your success or lack thereof is tied to recruiting. That’s something that I’ve maintained for years and years. That’s been really the key, is getting the right kind of guys into our system, then developing those guys.”
Have the Utes earned national respect?
Utah has taken big leaps forward since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. But even after last year’s accomplishments, the Utes are still seeking national respect.
“I think we’re still fighting for that in a way. We’re a program that is still working on our brand and trying to become more of a national presence. But you’ve got to earn that. No one’s going to give that to you,” Whittingham said. “The way you do that, every time you have a chance to prove that, national television, bowl games, that type of situation, then you have to play your way into that respect and that level. So I think we’ve made inroads. Are we where we want to be? Not yet. But we think we’re heading in the right direction.”