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What are some of the biggest storylines heading into Utah’s spring practices?

Utah football returns a wealth of talent and experience in 2023, plus welcomes several newcomers that are expected to shore up its depth and production

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Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and QB Cam Rising listen to an official as Utah and Penn State play in the 2023 Rose Bowl.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and QB Cameron Rising listen to a official as Utah and Penn State prepare to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. Both will be back in 2023, where the Utes will look to make it a three-peat as conference champs.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s quest to three-peat as Pac-12 champions has already begun.

For weeks, since early January, the Utes, who have captured back-to-back league titles, have been participating in winter conditioning. 

The next phase of the process begins next Tuesday, when Utah kicks off spring practices. 

“It’s another step in the right direction in the evolution of our program. We’re a program that’s still hopefully on the rise and trying to make our mark in college football.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham after winning a second-straight Pac-12 title

Utah returns a wealth of talent and experience in 2023, plus welcomes several newcomers that are expected to shore up its depth and production. 

The Utes finished the 2022 campaign with a 10-4 record and a No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll, marking the program’s highest final ranking since finishing No. 2 following the 2008 season when they went undefeated and won the Sugar Bowl.

“It’s another step in the right direction in the evolution of our program. We’re a program that’s still hopefully on the rise and trying to make our mark in college football,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We had the breakthrough last year with our first Pac-12 championship. We were preaching to the team all year long this offseason and all through fall camp how it is harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top.

“The challenge was trying to repeat. Through some unique circumstances, we were able to do that and take another step forward. We’ve just got to keep evolving and keep progressing and stay on this trajectory.”

The Utes open the 2023 season by hosting Florida on Aug. 31 (Thursday). Utah will entertain an SEC program at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time in its history. 

The Utes’ annual Spring Game will be held April 22.

Here are five key storylines going into spring drills. 

The quarterback depth chart

Perhaps the best news for the Utes during the offseason was that Cam Rising would return at quarterback. The worst news was that Rising suffered a torn ACL during the Rose Bowl loss to Penn State. 

“He’s doing great. He did have a postseason surgery and there will be a pretty extensive rehab,” Whittingham said in February. “But according to all reports, he’s fully expected to be ready to go for the season-opener. Having him back is invaluable to our football team. He’s our team leader … To have him back in that same role is going to be great for us.”

Obviously, Rising will not be able to participate during the spring as he recovers from surgery. 

That means Whittingham and his staff will be able to do an in-depth evaluation of the other QBs on the roster during the next month and could identify a pecking order.

That’s especially important in the event Rising is not healthy enough to play in the season-opener. 

It should be a wide-open competition for the backup spot. 

The reserve quarterbacks group includes walk-on Bryson Barnes, who started and led the Utes to a victory at Washington State last season; redshirt freshman Nate Johnson; Brandon Rose; and Mack Howard, who enrolled in January. 

In his college debut, Johnson, a 6-foot, 191-pound product of Clovis High, promptly ran for a touchdown on his first play against Arizona. Later, he ran for another TD.

Johnson became the first Utah true freshman QB to rush for a touchdown since Tyler Huntley in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana. And he became the first since at least 1996 to rush for multiple touchdowns in a game. 

“Those reps that you saw with Nate in the middle of the season or late in the season played to his strength, but they were just kind of novelty,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “They weren’t really quarterback reps, but he’s a tremendous athlete. He’s a football fanatic. It’ll be a great competition in the spring.”

Coaching stability and experience

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Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig answers questions during a press conference ahead of the Rose Bowl Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles. The Utes OC was courted by Notre Dame in the offseason but ultimately decided to remain at the U.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

One of the reasons for Utah’s sustained success starts at the top with Whittingham, who is entering his 19th season at the helm of the program.

Certainly, he’s proven to be one of the nation’s top coaches. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman ranked Whittingham as the No. 9 coach in the country; Stewart Mandel had Whittingham at No. 8.

“The Utes have been the most consistent program out West and Whittingham is the reason. His teams are always tough and physical. They have an identity and it never gives an inch. He’s 63 and seems to be getting better as he gets older,” Feldman wrote. “They’re 4-2 in their past six games against AP top-10 opponents. Under Whittingham, the Utes have finished in the top 25 eight times. Before he took over, they’d been in there only three times.”

Whittingham has also managed to keep the bulk of his staff intact in recent years. 

Last month, Ludwig interviewed for the vacant offensive coordinator job at Notre Dame but ultimately returned to Utah, which was a key development and provides continuity and stability to an offense that ranked No. 11 nationally in scoring (38.6 ppg) and No. 18 in total offense (466.9 ypg). 

The Utes did have one staff change during the offseason — Alvis Whitted replaced Chad Bumphis as the receivers coach. Bumphis left to join the staff at Mississippi State. Whitted spent the three previous seasons coaching that position at Wisconsin. 

Who’s gone, who’s back, who’s new?

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Stanford linebacker Levani Damuni follows a play during game against Washington State, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. The talented linebacker will play his final season of college football for the Utes this fall.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

Among the biggest departures from last season include cornerback Clark Phillips III, tight end Dalton Kincaid and center Paul Maile (who transferred to BYU). 

Besides Rising, Utah will benefit from the return of tight end Brant Kuithe, who missed most of the 2022 season with a knee injury. The Utes’ leading returning receiver, Devaughn Vele, is also back after catching 55 passes for 695 yards and five touchdowns last season. After spending a stint in the transfer portal, running back Micah Bernard decided to return to Utah. 

As far as the additions, linebacker Levani Damuni (Stanford), edge rusher Logan Fano (BYU), cornerback Miles Battle (Ole Miss), placekicker Cole Becker (Colorado) and wide receiver Emery Simmons (Indiana) all joined the program. Each of them could make a big impact in 2023.   

One returned missionary that is expected to play a big role is safety Nate Ritchie, who started as a true freshman for the Utes during the COVID-19-affected season in 2020.

“He’s another versatile athlete, a lot like Cole Bishop, like Sione Vaki, that he’s going to find his way on the field, and he was a starter for us before he left so I don’t anticipate that being much different,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said of Ritchie. “He’s going to have to get his mission legs underneath him and we’ll see how his body has developed, as well, but we’re excited for him and we’re going to put the best 11 on the field.

“We’re not going to put 11 safeties on the field, but we’ll find the best fit. All our guys understand that you are always competing for a job. We don’t promise anything to anybody other than the opportunity to compete, and that’s why I love coaching these guys.”

Who’ll start at running back?

Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, wearing red, is tripped up by Arizona Wildcats safety Christian Young.

Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson is tripped up by Arizona safety Christian Young as Utah and Arizona play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. The erstwhile QB found his groove at running back last season.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The running back position was fulfilled by committee last season as Tavion Thomas missed much of the season due to injuries or off-field issues. 

Will a bell-cow back emerge this season? 

While Bernard (106 yards, 533 yards, four touchdowns) has returned, there are other candidates for the job.

Ja’Quinden Jackson, who was switched from quarterback to running back during the season, rushed 78 times for 531 yards and nine TDs last year. 

At first, it seemed like a temporary move. But as the season wore on, Jackson enjoyed running the ball. 

“I just let (Ludwig) know I want to stay at running back. I’m having fun with it and I’m enjoying it. Once I got the rhythm down and saw things from the running back perspective, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I’m gonna stick with it and see where it takes me.” — Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson

“I just let (Ludwig) know I want to stay at running back,” Jackson said. “I’m having fun with it and I’m enjoying it. Once I got the rhythm down and saw things from the running back perspective, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I’m gonna stick with it and see where it takes me.”

Offensive lineman Keaton Bills is happy that Jackson is at running back. 

“I remember when I first saw him at running back, I was excited. I knew that man had some legs,” he said. “To see him fill that role, and take that role on his shoulders, it’s been so fun to see him play. I’m excited to see him in the future, next year, when he’s got a full year of being a running back. He’s going to do a lot of great things and I’m excited for him.”

Ludwig was pleased with Jackson’s performance at running back last season. 

“Lights out. Couldn’t be more happy for him, happy for us. He took to that. It was a conversation,” he said. “We were having some tailback depth issues. I said, hey, when we’re working on the handoffs with the running backs would you please just take a couple as a running back. It looked so natural, and he’s gotten better each week, and I think he’s on the path to being a big-time running back.”

Chris Curry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury, is back, as is Jaylon Glover, who gained 360 yards and scored four touchdowns on 78 carries as a freshman last fall. 

Four-star recruits John Randle Jr. and Mike Mitchell, as well as three-star recruit Dijon Stanley, will join the program this summer. 

Defensive development

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Utah linebacker Lander Barton sacks Southern Utah quarterback Justin Miller during game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Lander enjoyed a solid freshman season for the Utes and more is expected of him this season.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

The young Ute defense had their struggles early in the season before shoring up some of their deficiencies.

Utah is looking to be more cohesive from the start. 

The Utes will certainly miss Phillips, but they have plenty of good defensive players on that side of the ball, including defensive linemen Junior Tafuna and Simote Pepa; linebackers Lander Barton and Karene Reid; and defensive backs Cole Bishop, Zemaiah Vaughn and Sione Vaki.

Utah will add Damuni, Fano and Battle to the mix. 

Barton, who was a freshman in 2022, made dramatic progress last year. 

“A world of difference. At the beginning of the season, I was new to it,” he said. “It was my first time playing college football and everything was going really fast. After the first two games, things started to slow down and it became easier to make reads.”

Barton is optimistic about the defense this season.

“We’re all really close. Throughout the season, we became a lot closer as a brotherhood. It’s been good for us winning together, losing a few games together. It brought us really close,” he said. “We have really, really good potential for next season and seasons after that with all the young guys that are coming up. I have high hopes.”

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Utah Utes fans brave the cold in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News