‘We’re picking up where we left off’: A veteran Utah team opens fall camp
Despite returning a host of players, and despite a resume full of impressive accomplishments from last year, and despite all the preseason hype, there was no sense of complacency on the practice field.
Beneath a relentless, scorching sun and with temperatures in the low 90s, Utah opened fall camp Wednesday afternoon.
But the weather wasn’t the only reason why the Utes were feeling the heat.
Despite returning a host of players, and despite compiling an impressive list of accomplishments from last year, and despite being on the receiving end of preseason hype, there wasn’t a sense of complacency on the practice field.
Utah’s players and coaches certainly aren’t satisfied.
But they were happy to be back together for their first official practice, coming off a Pac-12 championship and trip to the Rose Bowl.
The 2022 season kicks off in exactly one month at Florida. Besides that, the Utes want a different ending than they experienced last year.
“It’s been a long offseason. It’s good to get back out here after a long while, to come back out here with the guys. We really embrace the grind and the heat. I missed it all,” said offensive lineman Braeden Daniels, who was drenched in sweat, and wearing a broad smile, as he talked to reporters after practice. “It’s always exciting on Day 1, whatever year it is. We all want to build off of last year. We want to refine that technique and become the offense and the team that we want to and achieve the goals that we want to.”
Falling to Ohio State 48-45 in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day has lingered in the Utes’ heads and hearts over the past six-plus months.
“We came up short. We all feel like that. We all felt that loss. A loss is a loss and we have to learn from that. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Daniels said. “Coming off that game and then going into a game against Florida in the Swamp, we’re basically picking up where we left off. I’m excited for our season. We’re starting where we left off.”
Running back Tavion Thomas enjoyed the atmosphere on the practice field with his teammates.
“The mood was excellent today. Great juice. Everybody was moving around. It felt good to be back out here. It was a beautiful day,” he said. “I was itching for it. We’re hyped. We’re ready to rock. We’re ready to put it all together and show what we’ve got this year and show that we’re better than we were last year. We were good last year but we know how we were last year but we know we want to do better than we did last year.”
Tight end Dalton Kincaid said since the season concluded, there’s been a lot of improvement.
“That excitement coming off the Rose Bowl, there’s a bittersweet taste in our mouths,” he said. “But a lot of momentum in the offseason is a good thing.”
Utah has been picked to repeat as Pac-12 champs, and for good reason. The Utes return significant proven production from a year ago, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, highlighted by starting quarterback Cam Rising.
“Great day,” is how coach Kyle Whittingham described the first practice. “We’ve got a veteran group. It’s what we expected. The offense, a lot of returning guys, the quarterback in particular.”
With so many veterans on the roster, Whittingham felt like his team was ahead of schedule on Day 1.
“Without question. It’s very evident that they’ve spent a lot of time on the field together this summer on their own,” he said. “Today was more like a practice eight or practice nine as far as lack of mental mistakes and how smooth things went.”
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig saw things differently.
“I appreciate the head coach’s take on that. It looked like a Day 1 to me,” he said. “You’re looking at fifth-year players and first-year players. There’s plenty of work to be done.”
Still, Ludwig loves having so many experienced players on the offense.
“A lot of those guys are in the fourth year of the same system. Very few changes in the system coming into this season,” he said. “Some tweaks and modifications, but nothing that those guys haven’t been exposed to.”
On Wednesday, Ludwig said the offense focused on red zone drills. Rising is the undisputed starter, but he’s not taking anything for granted. He’s acting as though he’s battling for the starting job. At the same time, he’s trying to help the other quarterbacks get up to speed.
“We’re hyped. We’re ready to rock. We’re ready to put it all together and show what we’ve got this year and show that we’re better than we were last year.” — Utah running back Tavion Thomas
“We’re putting a lot of our offense in early and we’re going to make it a little uncomfortable early,” Rising said. “But we’re going to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We’ll adapt to it as we learn the offense.”
Wide receiver Solomon Enis said having a bevy of veterans is a big benefit. But at the same time, the newcomers need to get acclimated to the offensive system.
“In the receivers group, we have a lot of young guys. Now it’s the question, how do you bring them along with you? We’re a veteran group but we’re a cohesive team so we’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Enis said. “It is good that we’re a veteran group. We haven’t really missed a beat because we’ve been in Ludwig’s offense for about four years now. Bringing the young guys along and they responded well today. It’s going to be a day by day process.”
Kincaid’s expectations are for the offense to be even better than it was last year.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Just knowing the chemistry is there from last year, just being to build on it during the offseason and just knowing that it’s continuing to grow and grow in fall camp. It’s exciting.”
For Enis, being back on the practice field was a tremendous feeling and he can’t wait for what lies ahead over the coming months.
What is he looking forward to most about the 2022 campaign?
“Everything. This is my last season. It’s the leaders that we have, the coaches that we have,” he said. “It feels like everyone is bought in and everyone knows what we have to do. That’s what’s so exciting. We’re going to be out here every day competing, being with our brothers, enjoying every step of the process.”
It was an historic season in 2021 for Utah, with a first Pac-12 title and a first Rose Bowl berth. But the Utes are eager to make this season even better.
“We lost our last game,” Rising said. “So we’re trying to make it right.”