What is going on in the University of Utah football program, where the injury bug has spread like the flu? Who knew that injuries to heads, shoulders, knees and toes were contagious? Maybe the Utes should wear a mask.
After three games, the MVP is clear: It’s Trevor Jameson, the team’s head trainer. Talk about a guy who has a tough job.
“We’ve got to get healthy. We’ve got 15 or 16 guys that can really help us win that are not available. We’ve got to start getting them back.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
Injuries are just about the only thing anyone is talking about in Ute circles. The Utah message boards have been lit up with injury discussion. It is the topic du jour.
Let’s take it from the top again.
Quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe — two of the team’s best players — haven’t played a down yet, both of them recovering from last year’s knee injuries. Brandon Rose, the No. 2 quarterback in camp, was supposed to fill in for Rising, but he was injured in a preseason scrimmage and hasn’t played yet this season. Dallen Bentley was signed in the offseason from Snow College as perhaps someone who could fill in for Kuithe, and, you guessed it, he’s injured and hasn’t played in a game yet.
Neither has center Johnny Maea, defensive tackle Simote Pepa and defensive end Connor O’Toole. Running back Micah Bernard played in the opener and is out for the season.
Several other key players have missed at least one game — defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, linebacker Karene Reid, cornerback JaTravis Broughton, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, running back Chris Curry, No. 1 receiver Devaughn Vele and kicker Cole Becker.
You know you’ve got real problems when even the kicker is injured.
After last week’s win over Weber State, head coach Kyle Whittingham noted, “I’ve been coaching 40 years. I’ve never, ever seen anything like this in that department.”
The injury department.
“We’ve got to get healthy,” says Whittingham. “We’ve got 15 or 16 guys that can really help us win that are not available. We’ve got to start getting them back.”
But there’s not a lot a coach can do. He can make players run extra laps, lift weights, run a play over and over, but he can’t order bones and ligaments to heal. After Tuesday’s practice, Whittingham said, “We hope three or four return this week. That would be ideal if we can get that. ... It’s looking optimistic for three or four, maybe five of those guys.”
Ready or not, the Utes will begin Pac-12 play and, wouldn’t you know it, just as the Pac-12 is dying from a case of terminal realignment, the league has resurrected itself (too late), putting eight teams in the AP Top 25, all of them 3-0. Utah’s pursuit of a third consecutive Pac-12 title appears to be its most difficult challenge yet.
The Utes will open with a home game against No. 22 UCLA Saturday. UCLA coach Chip Kelly waved off the talk about Utah’s injuries, saying the Utes are deep enough in talent that there isn’t much of a dropoff in performance. He might have a point, but how long can the Utes stave off increasingly difficult opponents until help arrives from the training room? And with nine regular-season games to go, what are the odds that more injuries aren’t on the way?
The bad news for the competition is that the Utes have won their first three games and climbed to No. 10/11 in the national polls with one arm tied behind their backs. This was when they were most vulnerable and Florida, Baylor and Weber State couldn’t capitalize on it, even against Utah’s No. 3 and No. 4 quarterbacks.
Rising, the all-conference quarterback, was thought to be indispensable; the Utes survived with his backups — Bryson Barnes, a junior from the recruiting hotbed of Miford (population 1,500), who had thrown just 59 passes in three seasons heading into the season opener against Florida — and Nate Johnson, a redshirt freshman who had thrown only five collegiate passes.
And still the Utes won.
Kuithe, an NFL prospect and all-conference tight end, was going to team up with wideout Devaughn Vele to form a strong receiving duo; instead, the Utes have relied on veteran receiver Money Parks and true freshman Mikey Matthews.
Utes on the air
No. 11 Utah (3-0)
vs. No. 22 UCLA (3-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
Bernard, part of Utah’s 1-2 running back duo, lasted only seven rushing attempts.
The Utes are just hanging on to the side of a cliff by their fingernails, waiting for help to arrive. They rank 85th nationally in points per game — but ninth in scoring defense.
On the bright side, the injuries are creating issues for Utah’s opponents. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kelly is preparing his team for all three of Utah’s potential starting quarterbacks — Rising, Johnson and Barnes. They’re all distinctly different players, so that does complicate matters for defenses, which means Whittingham will likely keep his starting QB under wraps until he trots onto the field for the Utes’ first drive of the game.
As one fan wrote about all the injuries on UteHub, “What the hell is going on?”