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‘Things are trending in the right direction’: Utes’ spirits are up despite emotional toll of canceled games

Coach Kyle Whittingham is encouraged by what he’s seen so far from the COVID-19 testing this week. Players impacted by the virus are returning to practices.

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Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) leads the Utes onto the field before the start of a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. After losing the first two games on their already-shortened schedule due to COVID-19 issues, players remain upbeat heading into this week’s scheduled game against USC on Saturday.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

For the Utah football program, it’s been the same old story the past two weeks.

Twice the Utes have expended a ton of energy into preparation for an opponent only to see that game canceled the day before kickoff due to COVID-19 issues. First, it was the game against Arizona. Last week, it was a contest at the Rose Bowl against UCLA.

“It’s been pretty rough ... it’s really challenging, getting all worked up and getting to the day before the game then to hear the news that you and your guys can’t go out there and fight and do what we’ve worked so hard for,” said junior running back Devin Brumfield. “It’s been a long few months. We were really prepared. Whoever we get to line up against, we’ll be ready.”

Utah’s next attempt at its season opener is No. 20 USC, which is scheduled to visit Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

Coach Kyle Whittingham is encouraged by what he’s seen so far from COVID-19 testing this week. 

“Things are trending in the right direction for us as far as getting back to health and getting guys back out on the practice field,” he said. “Right now, all of our efforts are geared toward getting ready for USC.”

The Utes held what Whittingham called an “excellent” practice Monday and they were planning to practice Tuesday.

“You might expect the players’ spirits to be a little down because of the disappointment the last couple of weeks, but that’s not the case,” he said. “They are eager and ready to go.”

Still, there’s no doubt that what’s transpired the past two weeks has taken an emotional toll on the players. 

“It’s been tough, particularly for the players. The coaches are probably a little more emotionally able to handle that. But the players are competitive, they’re looking forward to competing,” Whittingham said. “To have the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute two weekends in a row is difficult.

“But they’ve been very resilient and shown a great deal of resolve when they’ve come back. We’re in a good place right now mentally. We still don’t know a lot about our football team because we haven’t had a chance to play yet. But as far as their work ethic, their focus, their attention to detail, it’s all been very good.”

Whittingham said the program has seen the return of a number of players to help it meet the threshold of 53 available scholarship players in order to compete. 

“We’re getting more back, both out of quarantine and also the active cases have run their course for the most part. We still have a few that aren’t involved football-wise yet but they’re due to come out in the next few days,” Whittingham said. “We’re in a much better spot right now than we were the last two weeks.

“We tried to do everything in our power the last couple of weeks to play but between the 53 available scholarship players and/or a position group being decimated, that knocked us out of competition.”

Whittingham added that the depth chart has fluctuated because of players being unavailable to practice due to COVID-19 issues or injuries. 

Also, fewer scout team players and walk-ons are having to take on major roles like they have been recently because more players expected to be major contributors this season are back on the field. 

“For the most part, we’re in pretty good shape. It’s still not perfect but we’re in a much better spot than we have been at any point the last two weeks,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got ourselves back in a good situation. There are a few guys that we’re missing but hopefully we get those guys back shortly.”

Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald said the program is just rolling with the punches during this unusual period of trying to play football during a pandemic. 

“During the time of COVID, you know you’re going to go through adversity. It’s going to be tenfold. You just don’t know how it’s going to come at you, when it’s going to come at you,” he said. “For the last two weeks, it’s come at us at the witching hour. Last week, we were ready to get on a flight in about two hours and we had to shut it down.

“Up here, we get a chance to work,” he continued. “We’re workers. It’s been nothing but good. We get a chance to continue to hone our skills and work on our craft. I know we’ll be ready to go this upcoming week. There have been no setbacks. We’re going to push forward.”

Junior wide receiver Solomon Enis and his teammates have been controlling what they can control and focusing on improving every day. 

“The past few weeks have been a lot of consistent hard work. You can’t really do much about it. You’ve just got to get ready for whatever game we play next,” he said. “Emotionally, you’ve got to stay motivated and show the guys that whatever comes our way we can face it. I think we’re doing a very good job right now.”

Enis said Monday’s practice went well and that the mood of the team is upbeat.

“You have to come in and work, put in the work throughout the week and hopefully you get a game at the end of the week. Everyone is locked in,” he said. “Everyone is tired of the games getting canceled, but that doesn’t affect how we prepare. We have USC this week and it is a big game. I think we are ready to for it and everyone has been working hard.”