Taking stock of the Utes’ offense, defense and special teams in 2022
The Utes return 14 starters, and numerous key contributors, from last year’s Pac-12 championship squad, a team that fell in a dramatic Rose Bowl to Ohio State on New Year’s Day
It’s easy to see why. The Utes return 14 starters and numerous other players from last year’s Pac-12 championship squad, a team that fell in a dramatic Rose Bowl to Ohio State on New Year’s Day.
Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (0-0)
at Florida (0-0)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
Plus, Utah adds some key newcomers to bolster the roster.
If the Utes can stay healthy, build upon their offensive firepower they showed last season and play their traditional hard-nosed, stop-the-run defense, they should repeat as Pac-12 champs.
And with a season-opening test at Florida, Utah could position itself as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.
Here’s a glimpse at the Utes’ offense, defense and special teams:
Much is expected of Utah’s offense in 2022, what with quarterback Cam Rising and a host of proven playmakers returning.
The Utes are looking to build on last season, when they ranked No. 14 nationally in scoring.
Rising completed 204 of 320 passes for 2,493 yards with five interceptions and 20 touchdowns. He ran 74 times for 499 yards and six TDs en route to All-Pac-12 first team honors.
Also back are the Utes’ two leading receivers, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, and wide receivers Devaughn Vele and Solomon Enis. Yes, Utah will miss star receiver Britain Covey, but his graduation opens the door for others like Jaylen Dixon, Money Parks and Makai Cope to show what they can do.
At running back, Tavion Thomas rushed for 1,108 yards on 204 carries and Micah Bernard is another proven back.
On the offensive line, Utah has lost Nick Ford and Bamidele Olaseni, but coach Jim Harding is confident that the O-line, including left tackle Braeden Daniels, right guard Keaton Bills and center Paul Maile, will jell quickly to provide protection for Rising and open holes for Thomas.
Vele believes this year’s offense will be better, and more explosive, than last year’s version.
“We already know what we’re capable of. It’s not one of those things where we’re trying to find out what kind of offense we are. We already know what we are,” he said. “We know the weapons we have on the inside and on the outside. Now it’s fine-tuning the things that we have. We already know we have great tight ends. The receiver room is stepping up. The running backs and quarterbacks, we have no questions about them. And the linemen are going to do what they need to do. They’ve always been good. Now, it’s perfecting the little things.
What’s the biggest difference between Utah’s offense during last year’s fall camp and this year’s?
“The easy answer is Cam,” said Kincaid. “You saw what he did as soon as he got behind the offense and he went on a roll. And you’ve got to credit the (offensive line). As they go, we go.”
One of the major storylines for the defense is how does Utah replace the leadership and production of linebackers Devin Lloyd, who was a first-round NFL draft pick, and Nephi Sewell?
Fortunately for the Utes, Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, who was sidelined during the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, will help shore up the defense. Diabate brings plenty of leadership and Southeastern Conference experience.
Karene Reid received significant playing time last season while freshman Lander Barton is expected to play right away and make an impact.
Utah’s defensive secondary, which was depleted by the end of the season, is healthier now.
Clark Phillips III is a proven performer at cornerback while JaTravis Broughton is back after dealing with a shoulder injury a year ago.
Phillips likes the depth the Utes enjoy.
“We want to continue to get better,” he said. “But I will say it is fun to look across and say, ‘Dang, we’ve got guys.’ But we’ve got to stay healthy and manage everything.”
At safety, Cole Bishop came on strong at the end of the season and R.J. Hubert, who has overcome injuries, is expected to start as well. Illinois State transfer Clayton Isbell will also be in the mix.
On the defensive line, the Utes are counting on Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Junior Tafuna to continue his improvement. Van Fillinger is another young lineman with a big upside. Also joining the Utes is Stanford transfer Gabe Reid.
What will be the identity of this Utah defense?
“I’d say our identity is sticking to our culture RSNB. Being relentless to the ball, being smart on the field, being nasty — a good nasty, being competitive not combative — and then be ballhawks,” Tafuna said. “Flying around, getting to the ball and getting some takeaways. That’s our identity. That’s our culture. That’s what we live by.”
The Utes will certainly miss Covey’s dynamic abilities as a kickoff and punt returner.
Covey was spectacular at the college level and is now trying make an NFL roster. Replacing him won’t be easy.
Among those candidates to return kickoffs this season include Vele, Phillips, Kuithe, Parks and Tiquan Gilmore, according to special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah.
Punt return candidates include Bernard, Phillips, Parks, Vele and Makai Cope, Shah said.
The Utes struggled in the punt game at times last season — a blocked punt cost Utah in a loss at Oregon State. It’s something Whittingham has said needs to be shored up this season.
Jack Bouwmeester, a native of Bendigo, Australia, is expected to take over punting duties this season. He was at Michigan State from 2019-20, but did not play.
At placekicker, Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyes engaged in an in-season competition in 2021. Redding earned All-Pac-12 honors in 2020 and he won the job by the end of the ‘21 season. Noyes is expected to take care of kickoffs.