There’s an unmistakable theme when it comes to the 2023 season for Utah football. The Utes aren’t shy about talking what they want to accomplish this fall — a three-peat.

Utah, which has won back-to-back Pac-12 championships, is looking to make history by capturing a third title. 

“Nobody’s done that since the Pac-12’s been around,” coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday after his team’s first spring practice. “That’s one of our objectives this next season.”

It’s not a new theme. Whittingham said he talked about a three-peat with his players back in January. And after weeks of winter conditioning, they reconvened on the practice field on a cool, overcast afternoon. 

Of course, the Utes weren’t in pads yet, but they participated in a spirited session. 

“Exactly what you’d expect. First day, a lot of excitement,” Whittingham said. “It’s great to be out here. … It’s great to be out here, playing some football.”

“This is my first spring because I came up in the summer (last year),” said quarterback Nate Johnson. “But Day One was good. We were executing on both sides of the ball. Coach had a great game plan for our first install. The defensive side of the ball was doing an awesome job. I loved the energy out here. It was a great, great Day One.”

The last time we saw Utah, it lost to Penn State in the Rose Bowl back on Jan. 2 in Pasadena. A new season is dawning, and the Utes are looking forward, not back. They’re talking openly about a three-peat.

“It’s a big part of our culture now. Especially with us being back-to-back, we talk about attacking the championship rather than defending it,” said veteran wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “That’s the mindset we have right now. We’re just working towards that this spring.”

“It’s there. That’s what you should be striving for each and every day,” quarterback Bryson Barnes said about a three-peat. “Yeah, we’ve won it twice, but those two don’t matter. This year is a new year, so we have to focus on attacking that Pac-12 championship and getting another one.”

Barnes added that this is the time to work and prepare for next fall. 

“The most exciting thing is everything that happened last year doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “There’s no carryover to the next year. Now, it’s focusing on the chemistry with the guys and laying that foundation in the spring to set us up for the fall.”

Of course, some of the stars that have helped the Utes win two straight Pac-12 crowns, like starting quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe, are not participating on the field in the spring due to injuries. 

That provides opportunities for younger players to show what they can do. 

“It looked really good. A lot of the young guys are getting a lot more reps,” Vele said about Tuesday’s practice. “It’s different not seeing a lot of the guys from last season, but we got a lot of good work in today. It was a great first day.”

Naturally, the quarterback position is in the spotlight, particularly with Rising out. Rising suffered a torn ACL during the second half of the Rose Bowl. The hope is that he’ll be ready to go when the Utes kick off the season on Aug. 31 at home against Florida.

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In the meantime, Whittingham needs to establish the depth chart at QB, which includes Barnes, Johnson, Brandon Rose, Mack Howard and Luke Bottari.

“We want to sort things out and try to get a pecking order,” Whittingham said. “Cam, obviously, is our No. 1 guy. He’s not taking any reps in the spring, which leaves a lot of reps for 2 through 5. We’ve got to determine who those five guys are going to be. It’s a complete body of work throughout the whole spring. We got a good start today. As the reps accumulate, we hope to see some separation and make a determination on who’s 2-5 once spring ball is over.”

Whittingham explained that the reps between the four backups will not be evenly distributed. 

“Nate and Rose will get the most. We know what Bryson Barnes is,” he said. “He’s a very good player for us and he’s done good things. We have a big sample size on him. But we’ve got to really hone in on Rose and Nate and see what they can do.”

Some odds and ends from Day One of spring practices:

*Another player that didn’t participate in Tuesday’s practice was safety Nate Ritchie, who returned home in January from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“It’s been a slow process. It takes a while to get back in shape and get your legs back underneath you. He was not out there today,” Whittingham said. “He was not ready. He’s battling some lingering things that have cropped up during winter conditioning. But we hope to get him out there at some point during spring ball. But he’s a proven commodity. He played that 2020 season and he did some really good things.”

*Whittingham said Colorado transfer Cole Becker is the starter at placekicker, adding that it’s his to lose. Joey Cheek will challenge, but basically there’s no competition at that position, according to Whittingham. 

*Speedy freshman wide receiver Mikey Matthews reminds Whittingham of Britain Covey. 

“He’s not anywhere near that level yet, but that’s the type of player he is and can play in the slot,” Whittingham said. “There’s some good things going on. We’ll have a lot better idea once we’re two or three practices in pads.”

Utah’s spring game will be held April 22.