It lasted only five games, but it was a long, long year for the Utah football program.

As if the 2020 season itself weren’t difficult enough, one week after it ended, freshman running back Ty Jordan, a budding star and the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, died in a tragic accident.

While navigating through the global pandemic, the Utes saw their first two scheduled games of their truncated season, against Arizona and UCLA, canceled. 

It was a season like no other but before it concluded, coach Kyle Whittingham expressed his appreciation for the way his players handled the unusual circumstances. 

“It has been rough. It’s been different. It’s been challenging. But our guys have responded as well as they possibly could have. It was tough getting the rug pulled out from under them at the 11th hour in those first two games,” Whittingham said in early December. “That was a little bit disheartening. But it was the right decision to make. They responded and played their hearts out. It’s been a four-game season but it seems like a 14-game season. It’s been a journey. But you’ve got to be resilient, you’ve got to be tough and keep fighting. That’s what they’ve been doing.” 

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Whittingham hopes the 2021 campaign will return to a state of normalcy. 

“We’d like it to be perfectly normal and get back to the routine we’ve been used to for 30 years,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be completely normal, at least at first, because of recruiting. That’s already been determined that there won’t be any off-campus or on-campus recruiting going on until April 15. That’s going to be different.

“Coaches, as soon as the season is over, are typically packing our bags, hitting the road and going around the country recruiting these kids and making visits. That won’t be happening. The next thing after recruiting is spring ball. So we’re hoping that spring ball can have a return to normalcy and get our 15 practices in, our spring game and everything that usually goes on. That would be ideal, if we can get back to the routine.”

Looking back

Utah played five games in 2020, posting a 3-2 record. 

Once the season started Nov. 21, the Utes dealt with plenty of adversity. Early in the second quarter of their first game against USC, quarterback Cam Rising suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and was replaced by South Carolina grad transfer Jake Bentley.  

The next week, Utah was preparing for a game at Arizona State when it learned it would be playing at Washington instead. The Utes blew a 21-0 halftime and lost 24-21

At that point, Utah had nine turnovers and was struggling to consistently get the ball to its stable of playmakers.

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But at home against Oregon State on Dec. 5, the Utes made big improvements. Jordan ran for a career-high 167 yards and established himself as the Utes’ go-to back. Britain Covey scored on an electrifying 64-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter.

Before the season began, Whittingham expressed concern about his defense, which lost nine starters from the previous season. But in the end, it performed well overall.

Whittingham is proud of his young defense and what it accomplished this season. 

“They needed to go through that. I’m so proud of this team, especially all the new guys on defense,” he said. “We were second in the league in defense entering this game. If you would have told me that at the end of the season we’d be No. 2 in defense, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

The Utes were among the nation’s leaders in rush defense, allowing just 107.8 yards per game. 

Linebacker Devin Lloyd turned in a sensational season and was named a finalist for the Butkus Award

In the secondary, freshmen Clark Phillips, Nate Ritchie and Faybian Marks made a strong first impression. 

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Whittingham called senior safety Vonte Davis “one of the most improved players on the team.”

Among the bright spots for Utah was placekicker Jadon Redding, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 Special Teams honors. Redding was perfect — hitting 8 of 8 field goals and 17 of 17 extra points. Three of his last four field goals were from 40-plus yards, including a career-best 44-yarder against Washington State. 

2020 results (3-2)

USC 33, Utah 17

Washington 24, Utah 21

Utah 30, Oregon State 24

Utah 38, Colorado 21

Utah 45, Washington State 28

Utah spoiled Colorado’s shot at a Pac-12 South championship on Dec. 12 with a 38-21 win as the Utes scored 28 unanswered points in the second half. 

As it turned out, that was just a precursor to the season finale against Washington State. Utah trailed 28-7 at halftime but rallied to score 38 unanswered points in an eventual 45-28 victory

Senior quarterback Drew Lisk replaced Bentley late in the second quarter and took the most meaningful snaps of his career. He helped spark the memorable comeback. 

The day before the Washington State game, the Utes voted not to participate in a bowl game. 

After the win at Colorado, Covey summed up his teammates’ feelings about the taxing season. 

“The honest truth is, and I don’t think that anyone could criticize the team for saying this, we’re all pretty burnt out,” he said. “The whole team, we’re pretty burnt out, just with the  emotional drag of this season. To have one game is not fun but we’re ready to finish strong. We want to finish with a winning record going into next year.”

Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars plays during an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Looking ahead

Utah will enter the 2021 season on a three-game winning streak. The Utes have three nonconference games scheduled — at home against Weber State (Sept. 2), at BYU (Sept. 11) and at San Diego State (Sept. 18). Pac-12 North opponents will be Oregon State, Stanford, Oregon and Washington State. 

With the eligibility clock being frozen by the NCAA due to the pandemic, there are plenty of questions about who will return and who won’t. 

“Those conversations will take place and I’m sure we’ll have some guys that decide maybe they’re done and call it a career,”  Whittingham said. “If not, if everyone comes back, great. Some guys will test the NFL waters and get the evaluation and see where they stand and make those decisions.”

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The transfer portal should be busy.  

In January, the NCAA will likely pass legislation that would allow student-athletes to transfer once without the penalty of having to sit out for one season. 

“There will probably be more change and movement that’s going to occur,” Whittingham said. “That’s the way it seems to be heading. You’ve got to adjust as things change and try to get yourself in the best situation.” 

The day after Utah’s season ended, two quarterbacks announced they were joining the Utes: Baylor grad transfer Charlie Brewer and Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson. 

In December, Utah also signed four-star recruit Peter Costelli. 

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Brewer led Baylor to an 11-1 record, a spot in the Big 12 championship game and a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2019. 

Rising underwent successful shoulder surgery but he’s not expected to be ready to participate in spring drills. 

Last week, Bentley entered the transfer portal. He finished the season completing 77 of 124 passes for 882 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions. 

Even with Bentley’s departure, the Utes’ quarterback room will be crowded in 2021. It will feature Brewer, Jackson, Rising and Cooper Justice. 

“This team certainly has a lot of lessons to be learned with the amount of young guys that are getting their opportunity.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

At running back, how will Utah replace all that it has lost? 

With Jordan’s emergence during the season, running backs Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore entered the transfer portal before the Washington State game. 

Jordan rushed for 597 yards and 723 all-purpose yards. He concluded the season with three straight 100-plus yard performances. Redshirt freshman Micah Bernard had 15 carries for 76 yards in 2020. 

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive linemen Pita Tonga and Mufi Hill-Hunt both entered the transfer portal while Ritchie is planning to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lloyd is exploring his options and could enter the 2021 NFL draft. 

On special teams, punter Ben Lennon also entered the transfer portal. 

Whittingham was grateful that his team was able to play five games this season. He believes the challenges and trials will pay off for the program in the future. 

“This team certainly has a lot of lessons to be learned with the amount of young guys that are getting their opportunity,” Whittingham said.