Utah has all the pieces in place to make a run at a second straight Pac-12 title as the Utes enter spring football practices this week.
Following a 1-2 start, Utah rallied to win the Pac-12 championship last season. The Utes reached their first Rose Bowl game in school history where they fell 48-45 to Ohio State. They finished the season ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 and 10-4 overall. Now Utah enters a new season as the likely favorites to repeat as Pac-12 champions.
Related: Spring 2022 Pac-12 Power Rankings
Building on last season's success is expected with the Utes returning so many experienced playmakers on both sides of the ball – starting with quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas. A tough but manageable slate awaits Utah. The Utes open at Florida and have home contests against USC and San Diego State along with road tilts at Washington State, Oregon, and UCLA.
If Utah makes a successful push for a second Pac-12 crown, and perhaps a College Football Playoff berth, a few questions will need to be answered first as the Utes move through their spring practices.
5 Storylines to Watch During Utah's Spring Practice
1. Who will succeed Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell at linebacker?
Replacing dynamic defensive leaders like Lloyd and Sewell is never an easy task. Still, Utah seems well-equipped to reload at linebacker. The Utes arguably have more quality depth at the linebacker position than anywhere else on both sides of the ball. It is shaping up to be an intense battle for the two starting spots.
Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate joins Utah after he tallied 89 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, and four quarterback hurries for the Gators last season. Stanford transfer Gabe Reid will also play his final season for the Utes after posting 62 tackles, 10 TFL, and three pass breakups for the Cardinal a season ago. Both players will challenge immediately for a starting spot.
Karene Reid made a name for himself last season and is poised to take a bigger step forward this season. The former walk-on tallied 45 tackles, 2 TFL, and a sack a year ago. Hayden Furey also showed potential, registering 13 tackles and 2 TFL in mop-up duty last season. Newcomers Lander Barton and Justin Medlock are intriguing prospects, as are Ethan Calvert and Josh Calvert.
Related: Newcomers to Watch for the Utes
2. Who will backup Cameron Rising at quarterback?
Utah does not face the same sort of quarterback battle this spring as the team did in fall camp last year. Rising is firmly entrenched as the starter after leading the Utes to their first Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance. Who will be Rising's understudy is another question entirely.
Ja'Quinden Jackson was seemingly locked into the QB2 slot after Rising won the starting job and Charlie Brewer transferred last season. But Jackson did not get the nod when Rising went down with an injury late in the fourth quarter in the Rose Bowl game. Bryson Barnes, a walk-on quarterback from tiny Milford (Utah) HS, directed the offense on Utah's last two drives against Ohio State and led the Utes to a tying touchdown.
Barnes probably has a slight edge going into the spring. But Jackson is an incredible athlete who can climb back up the depth chart with progression in his passing abilities. Incoming freshmen Nate Johnson and Brandon Rose will both get a shot to show what they can do.
3. Who will step up in the secondary?
Injuries piled up in the secondary as last season progressed. The end result was a paper-thin defensive backfield that struggled to stop Ohio State's potent passing attack in the Rose Bowl. Senior leaders Vonte Davis and Brandon McKinney are gone, but Utah returns plenty of experienced playmakers in the secondary.
Clark Phillips III is a natural candidate to emerge as the defensive backfield leader. Phillips is a gifted playmaker and shutdown cornerback who totaled 62 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 13 pass breakups last season. JaTravis Broughton will be a factor once he's fully healthy from a season-ending injury that knocked him out of action after only two games a year ago. Cole Bishop is a rising star at safety. Zemaiah Vaughn, Faybian Marks, and Malone Mataele all showed a knack for being difference makers when they saw time on the field last season. Like Broughton, Vaughn and Marks are working their way back from season-ending injuries.
4. Who will fill the holes on the offensive line?
Nick Ford and Bam Olaseni are both gone after declaring for the NFL draft. The Utes must replace one of their most versatile linemen in Ford and an impact player in Olaseni at left tackle.
Jaren Kump is a good candidate to be an anchor and leader like Ford once he fully recovers from the season-ending injury that knocked him out after only four games a year ago. Kump could slot in at left tackle, but he's good enough to start anywhere on the line. Paul Maile will likely be the team's center after starting three games there last season. Like Kump, Maile is coming off an injury and probably won't be fully ready until fall camp.
Utah will have tons of returning experience up front, which will help the Utes maintain continuity on offense. Braeden Daniels, Keaton Bills, and Sataoa Laumea all will once again be in the mix to start on the offensive line.
5. Can anyone fill Britain Covey's shoes?
Utah's offense and special teams will not be the same without Covey. He was a dynamic playmaker who frustrated opposing defenses with his speed, intelligence, and elusiveness. Covey left Utah as the school's all-time leader in career punt return yards (1,092 yards). He also finished first or second in receiving yards each full season he played with the Utes. Covey also had immense value as a leader in the locker room.
The Utes may require more than one player to fill Covey's shoes at slot receiver, punt returner, and kick returner. Micah Bernard could potentially slide up from the backfield into the slot. Bernard is a dynamic runner who has good hands and Utah could utilize his natural speed well in the slot position. Money Parks and Connor O'Toole could also carve out bigger roles at receiver in Covey's absence.
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.