Coming off a strange season that featured just five games due to the pandemic, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham used the 2020 truncated campaign as an opportunity to grow the program and give valuable playing time to a bevy of young and inexperienced players.
The Utes entered last season on the heels of back-to-back Pac-12 South titles. In 2019, Utah climbed into the top-10 rankings and was vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Utes finished with an 11-3 record and seven Utes were selected in the 2020 NFL draft.
“We’re coming in not as experienced and not as a veteran of a team as we were coming into 2019. That was an exceptional, veteran football team with so many guys that had played a ton of football for us,” Whittingham told the Pac-12 Network. “Last year was the exact opposite of that, where it was all brand new. We had so many new guys. That experience of this past season, even though it was only five games, was invaluable for the development and growth of those young players. We’re in a much better spot as far as that goes.”
Here are five storylines to watch as Utah prepares to open spring practices.
The search for a new quarterback
For the second straight year, Utah is looking for a new starting quarterback and Whittingham said this is the top priority during spring ball.
The good news is, Whittingham and his staff have options.
The Utes picked a pair of transfers after the 2020 season concluded — Ja’Quinden Jackson (from Texas) and Charlie Brewer (a grad transfer from Baylor). While Jackson hasn’t played a snap of college football, Brewer threw for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns with the Bears.
In mid-December, Utah signed four-star quarterback Peter Costelli, who enrolled in January. Cam Rising, who won the quarterback battle last season and played only a little more than one quarter before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, won’t be able to participate in spring drills.
“No. 1 is getting the quarterback situation ironed out. That won’t be completely ironed out during the spring because Cam Rising won’t be able to participate,” Whittingham said. “But the room has essentially been rebuilt. There’s a lot of new faces in there. That will be job one. The offensive line is a veteran group and we feel really good about that.”
Filling the running back void
It appeared that Utah had found its next great running back in freshman Ty Jordan, who burst onto the scene, rushing for 597 yards and six touchdowns en route to earning Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors.
But a week after the conclusion of the season, Jordan tragically died, creating a massive void on multiple levels.
Before the 2020 season ended, the Utes lost a pair of running backs that decided to transfer — Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore — in part due to Jordan’s emergence.
But two transfers have bolstered the running back position for Utah.
TJ Pledger joined the Utes from Oklahoma, where he ran 135 times for 695 yards and six touchdowns, while Chris Curry had 91 carries for 336 yards for LSU. Both players offer experience at that position.
Returning is Micah Bernard, who had 15 carries for 76 yards last season. Meanwhile, the Utes also signed Ricky Parks, a Florida native.
“It’s a new look at running back. We obviously had some guys transfer out and then of course the tragic situation with Ty Jordan,” Whittingham said. “So we have a lot of new faces in the running back room.”
Over the past four years, no Pac-12 team has had more players taken in the NFL draft than Utah — 21, one more than Washington’s 20.
But this spring, the Utes won’t have anyone drafted because they didn’t lose any seniors after the 2020 season.
That means a lot of talent and experience returns.
“Not one guy opted for the (NFL) draft. Every ‘super senior,’ I guess you call them, came back, and the juniors who could have opted for the draft, talent-wise, decided to stay and play one more season,” Whittingham said. “I think they all made the right decision. We’re in a little bit different place than we were last year, but still not as veteran and experienced as we were in 2019.”
Big changes at wide receiver
During the offseason, there’s been plenty of turnover with the wide receiver position.
Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua both decided to transfer out of the program. Thompson, who played in 33 games and averaged 22.9 yards per catch, enrolled at Pac-12 South rival Arizona State.
“The receiving room has taken a hit. There’s no way around that. We’re not done adding to that room,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to add to that room in the offseason through the (transfer) portal most likely. That is something that’s a top priority. Not in spring ball because we’re going to develop the players we’ve got. Then we’ve got to add more players to that once spring ball is over.”
In late February, the Utes parted ways with wide receivers coach Guy Holliday, who spent five seasons with the program.
Monday, Whittingham hired his replacement, Chad Bumphis, 31, who was a graduate assistant coach at Utah in 2018.
“Chad Bumphis is an excellent addition to our coaching staff,” Whittingham said. “We’re very familiar with Chad from his year with us in 2018, and we’re elated to be able to bring him back to Utah. A very successful wide receiver in his own right, he has an impressive ability to teach and to motivate his players and we look forward to having him join our staff.”
A defensive star at linebacker
Whittingham is elated to have junior middle linebacker Devin Lloyd returning this season.
“Defensively, we’re solid up front. A lot of veteran guys. Devin Lloyd, I think, is one of the best linebackers in the country,” he said. “He headlines that group. In the secondary, all the guys returning this season have experience. That’s a good thing.”
Lloyd was named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award last season, emblematic of the nation’s top collegiate linebacker.
Whittingham is confident Lloyd will only continue to improve.
“He’s a first-round draft choice if he has the kind of year that we’re hoping that he has. He’s an incredible worker. He watches film constantly,” he said. “He does everything he can possibly do to be the best player he possibly can be and that shows. He comes from a place of really raw and inexperience in our program as a linebacker, never having any experience at that position in high school to the elite player that he is today.”