Why No. 7 Utah’s opener on national stage is (another) defining moment for the program
Utah fields a veteran team that knows how to prepare for big games on big stages like the Rose Bowl or in the heart of SEC country
GAINESVILLE, Florida — The last time No. 7 Utah took the field, it was on New Year’s Day at the venerable Rose Bowl, where the Utes fell in a classic contest against Ohio State.
To kick off the 2022 campaign, the Utes are playing at another historic venue — Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, The Swamp, Saturday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN).
Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (0-0)
at Florida (0-0)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
With rain in the forecast, it might feel like playing in an actual swamp.
That aside, Utah is a veteran team that knows how to prepare for big games on big stages, whether it’s in the Rose Bowl or in the heart of SEC country with a season opener at Florida.
For quarterback Cam Rising, it’s a challenge he’s looking forward to.
“It feels like Christmas is coming early. You finally get to play football again,” he said. “It’s going to be rowdy for sure. They’re going to be there in full force. We’ve been preparing for it.”
Utah, the reigning Pac-12 champion, is ranked in the top 10, its highest preseason ranking in program history. Many are projecting that the Utes have a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff.
Coach Kyle Whittingham said his veteran team has been preparing for this game for a while.
“Having a lot of guys returning always is a big help,” he said. “This game has gotten their attention since they came back from the Rose Bowl. … That’s one of the positives of a game like this. … There’s no one that appears to be overwhelmed. You go about your business and control what you can control.”
Tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham said this program is ready for another defining moment.
“It’s the season opener but it feels a lot like the Rose Bowl felt as far as the anticipation and the excitement and the opportunity to go into SEC country and play one of the perennial powers in the SEC,” he said. “We keep talking about how it’s harder to stay on top than to get on top. We’re taking the mentality that this is a new team, a new season and we’re out to prove ourselves in Game 1.”
“This game has gotten their attention since they came back from the Rose Bowl. … That’s one of the positives of a game like this. … There’s no one that appears to be overwhelmed. You go about your business and control what you can control.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
Unlike last season, Utah isn’t playing an FCS program to kick things off. There’s no gradual ramp-up to the season.
“This year is a lot different. We’re starting with an SEC team. We can definitely put the Pac-12 on the map if we play our hardest,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “It’s going to be a very physical game. It’s going to be a hard game. The better prepared team is the one that’s going to come out on top.”
Freshman running back Jaylon Glover, who’s from nearby Lakeland, Florida, will be making his collegiate debut. He said the offensive game plan is about striking early and striking hard.
“Offensively, we’ve got to hit those guys in the mouth first, come out and attack first,” he said. “They’re going to be home with 90,000 fans cheering them on. If we punch them in the mouth first, that will be a big emphasis. Coach Whitt came out fired up (at Monday’s practice). Be gritty, play hard, come out with a victory.”
Whittingham is optimistic about the way he thinks his offense, defense and special teams will perform Saturday.
What makes him feel so confident about the offense starts with Rising.
“He’s a tremendously talented quarterback. A great leader. He makes great decisions,” he said. “He’s unflappable under duress and under pressure. He’s the leader of our team.”
On defense, Whittingham likes Utah’s increased experience in the secondary, headlined by cornerback Clark Phillips III.
“The biggest difference is we’re much more experienced in the secondary than we had the last two years,” he said. “Two years ago we were painfully young. But there are no excuses — you’ve got to play no matter what year you are. It’s almost the same group from two years ago. We’re just more experienced.”
One freshman on defense that will make his much-anticipated debut is Lander Barton.
“He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s one of those guys that whatever sport he plays — he may have been the best basketball player in the state last year,” Whittingham said. “He’s gifted in every sense of the word. He’s also extremely intelligent, extremely competitive and extremely confident.”
On special teams, both placekickers Jordan Noyes and Jadon Redding could see action. Whittingham said the competition between them in fall camp was “extremely close.”
Whittingham feels good about both Noyes and Redding.
“We’ve got two kickers that we have a lot of confidence in — Jordan and Jadon. The kickoffs were as competitive as the placekicks,” he said. “If one struggles, the next one is ready to get his opportunity. We feel like we’re in a good place placekicking-wise.”
For Utah, it’s a new season and it’s a chance to build on what it accomplished in 2021, including a Rose Bowl appearance. The Utes showed tremendous resilience after going through two tragedies with the deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe.
“It’s helped us all come together,” said center Paul Maile. “We have a really tight, close-knit team. That stuff we went through last year has brought us together. You see the resiliency we showed last year.”
Senior team captain and defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi is looking forward to making the most of his final season of college football.
“This fall camp, I’ve tried to put it all together. I’ve been through position changes and coaching changes throughout my career,” he said. “It’s understanding that it’s my last go. Let’s put it together and let it all hang out and ride it until the wheels fall off. For me, it’s using my length and causing chaos on the defensive line.”
By virtue of what it accomplished last season, Utah has a target squarely on its back this season, starting Saturday at The Swamp.
“You can either go into defense mode or attack mode,” said tight end Dalton Kincaid. “I think we’re focusing on the attack mode. It’s harder to maintain being at the top but we’re up for the challenge.”