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What are Big 12 coaches saying about the Utah Utes as they get set for their first season in the conference?

Athlon Sports recently spoke to coaches from across the Big 12, granting anonymity so they could speak freely, to find out what they thought of the Utes. The remarks about Kyle Whittingham’s program from his peers were all positive.

On quarterback Cameron Rising:

“If (QB Cameron) Rising is back and healthy all season, they’ve got a legit shot at a first-year Big 12 title,” an anonymous Big 12 coach said.

One anonymous Big 12 coach complimented Utah’s veteran quarterback, who returns this season after missing all of 2023 following surgery to repair his torn ACL, meniscus, MPFL and MCL.

For the Utes, Rising has helped revitalize their offense, leading them to back-to-back Pac-12 titles and throwing for a combined 5,527 yards and 46 touchdowns with 13 interceptions and a 64.25% completion rate in his last two seasons.

When healthy, Rising has been the perfect signal-caller for Andy Ludwig’s offense, but it remains to be seen how he will fare in a game in his return from injury. In spring, though, Rising looked good and moved well.

‘It’s definitely these guys on Day 1’

“If you had to pick one program coming in from the Pac-12 as a legit contender, it’s definitely these guys on Day 1. They’re replacing a lot of guys in the WR group and secondary, but the system and culture there is so steady,” another Big 12 anonymous coach said.

Utah is replacing some key wide receivers in Devaughn Vele, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos, and Mikey Matthews, who transferred to Cal, but the Utes ended up upgrading that position group this offseason.

USC transfer receiver Dorian Singer, who had 66 receptions for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns in 2022 at Arizona before seeing a drop-off at USC the next season, where he had 24 catches for 289 yards, is a prime candidate for WR1.

Syracuse transfer Damien Alford, who caught 33 balls for 610 yards and three scores, could replace Matthews in the slot, and Mycah Pittman, whose season was cut short to two games last year, could also fill that role. Money Parks (31 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns) is another key target for Rising.

The secondary has two huge holes after safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki were drafted, but Utah feels confident in the ability of cornerback-turned-safety Tao Johnson and one of Nate Ritchie, Johnathan Hall and Stanford transfer Alaka’i Gilman to fill the other spot.

At cornerback, where the Utes have one open starting position, Georgia Tech transfer Kenan Johnson (29 tackles, two forced fumbles, four pass breakups and an interception) is the favorite to win the job.

‘Better than their record in ′23′

“This team was way better than their record in ‘23 when you factor injuries, especially on offense,” an anonymous Big 12 coach said.

Utah went 8-4 last year amid a long list of injuries — Rising, tight end Brant Kuithe, tight end Thomas Yassmin, running back Chris Curry, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, linebacker Lander Barton, defensive end Logan Fano and defensive end Jonah Elliss (missed last two games) all missed time, and several other players missed at least a couple of games.

The quarterback situation was not ideal. Bryson Barnes had a couple of good games in wins over Florida and USC, but faded toward the end of the season as the Utes lost three of their last four, including an ugly 14-7 bowl loss to Northwestern. Nate Johnson didn’t fare any better in his stints, aside from leading the Utes to a win over Baylor.

With Rising back, a lot of Utah’s offensive woes from last season can be fixed if he plays like he did in 2022 and 2023.

‘Bullying finesse offenses’

“They’re coming from a conference where they built a brand by bullying finesse offenses and creating that crazy home environment,” an anonymous Big 12 coach said.

Considering Utah’s offense scored just 23.1 points per game (96th in the nation) last season, and 8-5 record wasn’t the worst possible outcome.

Things could have become a lot uglier for the Utes had their defense not answered the call for the majority of the games.

Utah allowed just 19.3 points per game in 2023, ranking No. 21 in the NCAA. Against some of the best quarterbacks in college football, the Utes allowed 224.4 passing yards per game (65th in the country) and only 82.8 rushing yards per game (fourth in the country).

The Utes have built a brand on consistent, tough defense during Whittingham’s tenure, and it’s usually the first thing opposing coaches mention about the Utes.

As mentioned above, there’s three open spots in the secondary to fill, but the Utes are loaded at linebacker — even with the injury to Levani Damuni, who will miss at least a large chunk of the season. Along the defensive line, Utah returns all of its starters except for Elliss, who was the Utes’ best defensive player last year, leading the nation in sacks per game last season (1.2), even while playing six games with a torn labrum.

Utah’s familiarity with the Big 12

Utah has played five schools in the Big 12 — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, TCU and BYU more than five times in the Kyle Whittingham era, and Utah has faced three other current Big 12 teams with Whittingham at the helm — Iowa State (2010), West Virginia (2017) and Baylor (2023).

Utah's Luke Matthews is unable to make the catch with TCU's Jason Teague defending at Rice-Eccles Stadium. | Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

The Utes will face seven other schools — UCF, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech — for the first time in the modern era over the coming years.

Utah’s 2024 Big 12 slate features home games vs. Arizona, TCU, BYU and Iowa State and road games against Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Houston, Colorado and UCF.

In case you missed it

Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake, who was on Whittingham’s staff at the time, recall Tennessee’s courtship of the Utah head coach in 2010 — and why Whittingham stayed.

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Extra points

  • How Kalani Sitake and Kyle Whittingham view recent developments in NCAA structure, college football (Deseret News)
  • Former Utah star Alissa Pili goes off for first 20-point game in young WNBA career (Deseret News)
  • What Mike Gundy said about the Utes under Kyle Whittingham (Deseret News)