SALT LAKE CITY — Spring football kicks off Monday for the Utah Utes. They’ll do so with a lot of vacancies to fill. Only two starters return on defense and the offense is looking for new starters at quarterback, running back, left tackle and a leading wide receiver.
Graduation and early departures to the NFL have left the two-time defending Pac-12 South champions in a youth movement. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the Utes will have 35 freshmen on scholarship this fall, by far the most in his lengthy tenure with the Utes. Then there are as many as 17 sophomores holding scholarships.
“There is a lot of young talent in the program,” Whittingham noted during his press conference on national signing day.
Opportunities are plentiful as the Utes open spring camp. The program sent a school-record nine players to the NFL Scouting Combine.
Utah spring football practice schedule
All sessions open to the public unless moved indoors by inclement weather.
- March 2, 3 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 3, 3 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 5, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 17, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 19, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 21, 9:30 a.m.: Rice-Eccles Stadium
- March 24, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 26, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- March 28, 9:30 a.m.: Rice-Eccles Stadium (scrimmage)
- March 31, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- April 2, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- April 3, 3:30 p.m.: Rice-Eccles Stadium (scrimmage)
- April 7, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- April 9, 2:30 p.m.: Eccles Football Center practice fields
- April 11, 11 a.m.: Rice-Eccles Stadium (Red-White Game)
“It is going to be a big challenge replacing those guys,” Whittingham said in emphasizing the opportunity for the young talent to step forward. “... We are ready to gear up and get going on spring ball.”
The Utes will practice three times this week before shutting things down for spring break. Practices will resume on March 17 and continue three times weekly until the annual spring game on April 11. Whittingham said the finale may be modified if their numbers get a little bit low.
A vast majority of Utah’s 2020 signing class won’t be participating in spring ball. Quarterback Jake Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, is enrolled at the U., as is highly touted cornerback Clark Phillips III. Other signees already in the program include safety Ben Renfro and cornerback Caine Savage. So, too, are returned missionaries Hunter Lotulelei, Taniela Pututau, Tennessee Pututau and Aliki Vimahi. Lotulelei is an offensive lineman, while the others are on the defensive line.
Although the Utes won’t be at full strength this spring, valuable reps will be up for grabs.
Key storylines include:
Finding a new starting quarterback
In the wake of Tyler Huntley’s graduation and Jason Shelley’s decision to transfer, Utah’s stable of quarterbacks will have some new faces in 2020. Headlining the cast is Bentley. The graduate transfer, who once passed for 510 yards against Clemson, joined the program in December.
“Jake is a big addition for us. In today’s world with the (transfer) portal and the way things are changing, the quarterback room can change dramatically from year to year,” Whittingham said when Bentley signed. “That’s the position that undergoes the most change. We’re excited to have Jake in the room. He’s got a big arm, more of a pro-style guy.”
Bentley is expected to compete with Texas transfer Cameron Rising this spring as the Utes seek a replacement for Huntley, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 recognition in 2019.
Senior Drew Lisk is also in the mix and is the only signal-caller in the program to have taken a snap for the Utes. Rising, though, has practiced with the team for the past year while gaining eligibility under NCAA transfer rules. Rising didn’t play in a game last season, but did get extensive work during Utah’s Alamo Bowl preparations.
“The bowl experience in practice that he got was invaluable,” Whittingham said. “It was huge.”
So who will take the first snap this spring? Whittingham wouldn’t say.
“I guess we will find out,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you right now. I can tell you it will be Cam, Drew or Jake. We can narrow it down to those three.”
Stocking up the secondary
Phillips III is the centerpiece of what will be a rebuilt secondary for the Utes. Besides losing starting safeties Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess to graduation, there are also big shoes to fill at corner and nickel. All-American Jaylon Johnson and speedy Javelin Guidry have opted to enter the NFL draft and give up their final seasons of college ball. Corners Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse have completed eligibility. All said, the Utes have lost cornerbacks that were on the field for 98% of the snaps last season. Johnson, Guidry, Lewis and Nurse had a combined 126 tackles, 30 pass breakups and four interceptions.
The rebuild, thus, will involve a serious youth movement. Although collegiate experience is in short supply, Phillips III is someone opposing offenses will have to deal with as the Utes move forward. The former California prep star, who flipped a recruiting commitment to Ohio State, enrolled at Utah early and is getting well-versed in the defensive scheme.
“Just watch,” Whittingham said as spring ball approached. “Just watch Clark. He’s really good.”
Phillips III, a four-star recruit, is stepping into an immediate leadership role. Caine Savage is the only other freshman corner participating in spring ball. Kenzel Lawler and Faybian Marks are still in high school. All said, Whittingham noted that the group is “pretty special.”
Junior Bronson Boyd has limited experience, as do sophomores JaTravis Broughton and Malone Mataele. Young safeties Aaron Lowe and Drew Rawls will get reps at corner this spring as well.
At safety, true freshman Ben Renfro has already joined the program and should benefit greatly in doing so. Whittingham said the Utes are also really high on signees Kamo’i Latu and Nate Ritchie, who will join the team this summer. Junior R.J. Hubert is an experienced safety, but is still recovering from an injury. Shelley, who was moved to safety from quarterback, ultimately decided to enter the transfer portal — adding to a “wide open” situation at the position. Senior Vonte Davis could be a factor.
Reloading the defensive line
Utah may have had the nation’s top defensive line in 2019. Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu were All-Americans and John Penisini earned all-conference recognition. The combined damage the seniors inflicted on the opposition was staggering — 86 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. The Utes wound up with the nation’s third-best rushing defense, allowing just 81.8 yards per game.
Replacing the trio could be a challenge, at least initially. The cupboard, though, is far from bare. Starting end Mika Tafua made 47 tackles (8.5 behind the line of scrimmage) in 2019 and is just a junior. Then there’s Maxs Tupai, an experienced senior.
The rest of the rotation, though, will fill some huge holes left by the departures of Anae, Fotu and Penisini.
Whittingham is optimistic, adding that in time the Utes are going to have another “pretty good group” up front. Redshirt freshman Miki Suguturaga saw action in four games last season and is expected to build on it. The Utes are also high on Blake Kuithe, a freshman who has battled injuries.
“If he can stay healthy he is a heck of a player,” Whittingham said. “What (twin brother) Brant is to the offense, he can be to the defense.”
A trio of high school signees — Xavier Carlton, Van Fillinger and Tyler Wegis — will join the program in the summer, giving the Utes increased talent and depth at end.
As for the interior, Utah has seniors Viane Moala, Hauati Pututau and Pita Tonga. Whittingham said Moala, a transfer from Hawaii, is being touted by some scouts as the best D-tackle in the Pac-12 in the coming season.
Redshirt freshman Semisi Lauaki has put on 60 pounds since joining the Utes. Whittingham said the 6-foot, 305-pounder is “as quick as a cat.” Returned missionaries Taniela Pututau, Tennessee Pututau, Aliki Vimahi will also compete for playing time. Signees Keanu Tanuvasa and Tanoa Togiai could be factors in the future.
Replacing a record-setter
Whittingham insists there is life after Zack Moss at running back. The Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year left quite a mark during his tenure with the program. The team’s first three-time 1,000-yard rusher saw plenty of action for the Utes — setting school records that include 4,167 career yards, 712 carries, 38 rushing touchdowns and 18 100-yard rushing games.
Because of the durability of Moss, there’s very little experience poised to compete for the job. Even so, Whittingham insists the Utes have plenty of options and they’ll see who rises to the top. The battle could be keen this spring. The top returnees include junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore. They were third and fourth, respectively, with 263 and 194 yards rushing — trailing only Moss and Huntley on the team last season.
Junior T.J. Green (68 yards) and redshirt freshman Micah Bernard are also in the mix. Senior Devonta’e Henry-Cole transferred to BYU.
Utah signed Texas high school star Ty Jordan, who reached 100 yards rushing in 13 games over his career. He’ll join the Utes this summer. Whittingham said Jordan is fast. He’s a 10.5 guy in the 100 meters.
“He is thick, he isn’t very tall, but he is put together really well,” Whittingham said. “He had a lot of offers and was very sought after. He is a guy that we think will be very dynamic in this system and we think Andy (Ludwig) will put him to work right away.”
Stability on the staff
While the roster is undergoing a rebuild, of sorts, Utah’s coaching staff remains stable. There was no offseason movement. All the coaches that helped the Utes win the Pac-12 South and rise to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings are back.
“The continuity of that helped with recruiting,” Whittingham said. “We didn’t have to do any midstream handoffs from one coach to another, or a guy that really liked his position coach and then that coach changes.”
Whittingham’s full-time staff includes defensive coordinator/safeties coach Morgan Scalley (13th year), special teams coordinator/cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah (9th year), assistant head coach/offensive line Jim Harding (7th year), offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig (2nd year, 6th overall), defensive line coach Lewis Powell (6th year), wide receivers coach Guy Holliday (5th year), recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham (5th year), running backs coach Kiel McDonald (4th year), defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha (2nd year) and linebackers coach Colton Swan (2nd year).
Whittingham has been Utah’s head coach since sharing duties with Urban Meyer in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. He’s posted a 131-63 record at the helm and has taken the Utes to 14 bowl games. The 60-year-old Whittingham, who has been at Utah since 1994 when he was hired to coach the defensive line, is closing in on Ike Armstrong’s school record for most victories. Armstrong led the program to 141 wins from 1925-49.
“I don’t concern myself with that stuff,” Whittingham said after signing a contract extension in 2017. “Tunnel vision, I think, is critical for a coach to stay focused on the next challenge. That’s it. That’s my mentality.”