SALT LAKE CITY — Camp opens Wednesday for a Utah Utes team picked to win the Pac-12 South and the conference championship game. They were the media’s choice for both accolades in the league’s annual preseason poll.
“It’s an accolade for the players in the program, which is the best thing about it,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
On the other hand, Whittingham noted the need to not get hung up on it.
“We’re getting a lot of preseason hype, I guess you could say, and it doesn’t mean a thing,” he continued. “It does not mean a thing. It’s not going to help you win any games.”
The important thing, Whittingham continued, is handling it the right way.
“So just stay focused, ignore what’s out there and just continue to respect the process that we have in place,” he said.
Utah opens the season Aug. 29 at BYU. Non-conference play concludes with home games against Northern Illinois (Sept. 7) and Idaho State (Sept. 14). The Utes begin their Pac-12 slate Sept. 20 at USC. Their conference schedule also includes home games against Washington State (Sept. 28), Arizona State (Oct. 19), California (Oct. 26), UCLA (Nov. 16) and Colorado (Nov. 30). Road dates are set for Oregon State (Oct. 12), Washington (Nov. 2) and Arizona (Nov. 23).
Here are five compelling storylines going into fall camp:
At Pac-12 Media Day, Whittingham told reporters that the Utes got a head start when it comes to managing high expectations. They topped the conference’s annual preseason media poll as South Division and league championship favorites.
“We started these discussions with our players two or three months ago because we felt like we were going to have some preseason hype and that type of things,” Whittingham said. “So we wanted to make sure that we got ahead of it and talked to our players about just ignoring the noise and just staying focused.”
Lofty expectations in the Pac-12 is new for the Utes. This is the only time they’ve been picked to finish first since joining the conference in 2011. Previous bests included second-place forecasts in 2012, 2017 and 2018. The first two of those three resulted in fifth-place finishes.
As time has passed, though, Whittingham said the Utes are more suited to meet challenges after transitioning from the Mountain West Conference.
“We’re still not a finished product. I don’t know anybody that is,” he explained. “But we feel like we’re certainly better equipped right now than at any time that we’ve been in the league to be competitive.”
Whittingham doesn’t mince words when it comes to the return of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. The well-traveled coach, who was with the Utes from 2005-08, left the program after the Utes' Sugar Bowl win over Alabama to run offenses at California, San Diego State, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt.
“I think Andy has had success everywhere he’s been. I know he has,” Whittingham said. “And last time around, the ’08 season, we were 13-0 (the) last time he coordinated our offense.”
Ludwig, Whittingham continued, is a “meticulous, detail-oriented guy” who brings a lot of compatibility and is in line with the way Whittingham played the game.
In his second tenure at Utah, Ludwig inherits an offense featuring seniors Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss at quarterback and running back, respectively. The veterans anchor a solid foundation. Whittingham said the offense has already embraced what Ludwig introduced during spring ball.
The buy-in factor, he explained, is probably the biggest thing.
“Right now we’ve got great buy-in,” Whittingham said. “They believe in what he’s doing.”
Utah ranked seventh in total offense (413.2 ypg) last season in the Pac-12. The Utes were ninth in third-down conversions and 10th in passing.
Big shoes to fill
Like every team in the country, Utah has shoes to fill. The Utes, though, have some big ones with the graduation losses of national award-winning specialists Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky. Gay, a Lou Groza Award honoree, and Wishnowsky, a Ray Guy Award victor, have moved on to the NFL, leaving the Utes without a pair of All-America weapons. Finding a new kicker is a particular concern.
There are other significant personnel losses, too.
Linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen, who led the Utes in tackles last season, also completed their eligibility. Barton joined safety Marquise Blair in being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks. In additiono to Blair, Utah will be without its other starting safety, Corrion Ballard.
Then there’s the offensive line, where starters Jordan Agasiva, Jackson Barton and Lo Falemaka are also gone.
Finding replacements shouldn’t be completely taxing because of increased depth in the program. The move of senior Julian Blackmon from cornerback to safety will make things relatively smooth in the secondary. However, answers on the offensive line and at kicker won’t be as easy to resolve. At linebacker, Penn State transfer Manny Bowen and Francis Bernard have the potential to step right in and make an impact.
Utah’s quest for an improved passing game is complicated by a lack of experience. Aside from junior Britain Covey, who made a team-high 60 catches last season, no one else on the team had more than 32 receptions.
Camp opens with a pre-fall depth chart featuring Covey, senior Demari Simpkins and sophomore Bryan Thompson as the projected starters at receiver. Simpkins had 26 receptions in 2018 while Thompson is coming off a redshirt. Others in the mix include junior Samson Nacua (31) as well as sophomores Jaylen Dixon (32) and Solomon Enis (13). At tight end, the Utes return sophomore standouts Cole Fotheringham (17) and Brant Kuithe (20).
Huntley is back at quarterback after being sidelined with a broken collarbone in a loss at Arizona State last November. In 23 career games at Utah, Huntley has completed 354 of 553 passes for 4,259 yards and 27 touchdowns. He’s been intercepted 16 times.
It remains to be seen how effectively the Utes will throw the ball in Ludwig’s first season back. A revamped offensive line and lack of a go-to receiver make success hard to predict.
However, if Moss can continue his effectiveness, the passing game may benefit greatly from a successful ground attack.
Although Whittingham is the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 — having been in charge of the Utes since sharing duties with Urban Meyer in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl — he enters the upcoming season on the heels of some significant changes to his staff. Associate head coach Gary Andersen and linebackers coach Justin Ena are at Utah State. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor is now the head coach at Sacramento State.
Whittingham filled the vacancies with Ludwig on offense, plus former Utah standout Sione Po’uha and longtime Weber State assistant Colton Swan on defense.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley joined Whittingham’s staff in 2008. Subsequent additions include cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah (2012), assistant head coach/offensive line coach Jim Harding (2014), defensive line coach Lewis Powell (2015), wide receivers coach Guy Holliday (2016), tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham (2016) and running backs coach Kiel McDonald (2017).
Leadership, though, is something Kyle Whittingham emphasizes somewhere else first. He said teams where the coaches set the lead are usually pretty average.
“Teams where the players lead, they’ve got a chance to be great,” he said.
In that regard, Whittingham noted that the 2019 Utes have been outstanding.
“I think we’ve got a great group of seniors and some underclassmen that have really stepped into leadership roles,” he said. “I’ve never been around a great team that didn’t have great leadership.”