Utah is a team on the upswing entering spring football practices. The Utes wrapped up an abbreviated 2020 season with three straight victories. Twenty starters are expected to return from that team and, aside from quarterback and running back, there are few questions on either side of the ball.
Building on the momentum from the final three games of 2020 hinges on figuring out who will lead the offense. Utah's defense is assured of taking another step forward and becoming a nationally elite unit once again. Can the offense rise to the occasion while breaking in a new signal-caller and new lead running back? If the answer is yes, another Pac-12 South crown — and, perhaps, even a Pac-12 title — is within reach this fall.
5 Storylines to Watch During Utah's Spring Practices
1. Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
Year one of the post-Tyler Huntley era at quarterback turned into a mess. Cam Rising suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the season opener. Jake Bentley struggled through five games before getting benched in favor of Drew Lisk against Washington State. Bentley and Lisk are both gone. Rising is still in the program, but will not participate in spring camp. That opens the door for Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer, Texas transfer Ja'Quinden Jackson, and true freshman Peter Costelli to make a push to be the new starting quarterback. Brewer figures to be the favorite. The graduate transfer threw for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns with the Bears and led Baylor to the 2019 Sugar Bowl.
2. Who will replace Ty Jordan in the backfield?
Tragedy struck the football program in December when Ty Jordan died from an accidental gunshot wound. Jordan earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors after running for 597 yards and six touchdowns in five games. He leaves a huge hole in the offense that will be tough to fill. Utah hit the transfer portal to shore up depth in the backfield, bringing in T.J. Pledger from Oklahoma and Chris Curry from LSU. The duo joins Micah Bernard and true freshman Ricky Parks. Pledger likely has the early edge after running for 451 yards and five touchdowns for the Sooners last season.
3. Can Utah build quality depth at receiver?
Changes abound at receiver for the Utes. Kyle Whittingham fired receivers coach Guy Holliday at the end of February and brought in former graduate assistant Chad Bumphis from FCS Austin Peay to replace him. Holliday's fate was sealed after receivers Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua entered the transfer portal. Thompson joined Arizona State and Nacua headed to BYU. The good news is Utah returns top tight end Brant Kuithe and top receivers Britain Covey and Solomon Enis. Jaylen Dixon also is back after a one-year absence from the program. They are expected to be Utah's primary receivers in the fall, but building depth behind the foursome will be an important priority — especially given Covey's track record with injuries.
4. How much will experience help the defense progress?
Utah replaced nine starters on defense last season and, in the end, barely missed a beat. The Utes finished the season as one of the top defensive teams in the Pac-12 yet again. They ranked second in the league in total defense (365.0 ypg) and third in scoring defense (26.0 ppg). The ceiling for the Utes is sky high on that side of the ball with so many standouts returning. Utah got a major boost when junior linebacker Devin Lloyd bypassed the NFL draft to return for another season. Lloyd led the Utes with 48 tackles and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Mika Tafua headlines a deep defensive line and is coming off a season where he tallied 14 tackles and 3.0 sacks. The secondary should also be tough with Clark Phillips III, JaTravis Broughton and Faybian Marks all emerging as disruptive forces in the defensive backfield a year ago.
5. Can Utah become fearsome on special teams again?
The Utes suffered some uncharacteristic struggles in the punting game last season. Ben Lennon entered the transfer portal after Jared March took over punting duties late in the season. March showed promise in limited action and will have the inside track to be the starting punter from day one in 2021. Jadon Redding emerged as a weapon at placekicker after going 8-of-8 on field goals and 17-of-17 on PATs. Redding was one of five FBS players to not miss a field goal in 2020. Covey remains a dangerous punt returner. His 64-yard punt return touchdown against Oregon State proved to be the winning score against the Beavers.
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— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.