The Utah Utes played only five games during a truncated, COVID-impacted 2020 season, and really, how much knowledge can be gleaned from only five games played in the middle of a global pandemic?
Here are a couple of things that are inarguable: The Utes were playing their best football at the end of last season, winning their last three games to finish 3–2 after a sluggish start. Furthermore, a lot of veteran talent returns from that team, including 18 starters, feeding the notion that the Utes can once again be a factor in the Pac-12 South, if not the entire Pac-12.
Previewing Utah's Offense for 2021
Utah is slated to return 10 starters on offense, but the one that’s missing happens to be at the most important position.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising won the starting job out of fall camp but was lost for the season on the 14th offensive snap of the season opener due to a shoulder injury. That made room for backup Jake Bentley, who has since transferred to South Alabama.
Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer is now in the mix after throwing for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns in four seasons in Waco. The transfer portal also yielded Texas freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson, while four-star 2021 commit Peter Costelli is also on campus.
This quarterback competition is likely to boil down to Brewer and Rising, provided the latter is healthy and able to practice with no restrictions. However, Jackson could figure into the mix in specific packages, potentially as a Wildcat option. Jackson, like Brewer, had a huge high school pedigree, starring at Dallas-area power Duncanville High School as a four-star recruit before winding up at Texas as a freshman.
The transfer portal is also shining a spotlight on the Utah running backs, as TJ Pledger (Oklahoma) and Chris Curry (LSU) figure to fight for carries, along with redshirt sophomore Micah Bernard, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season on limited touches.
The entire offensive line returns, led by All-Pac-12 first-team interior lineman Nick Ford, while All-Pac-12 pass-catching tight end Brant Kuithe (25 receptions in 2020) also is back.
Utah is light at wide receiver after multiple springtime transfers, but do-everything option Britain Covey is back. Head coach Kyle Whittingham has said that he expects to search the transfer portal for wide receiver help.
Previewing Utah's Defense for 2021
Of the eight defensive starters slated to return in 2021, none is more important than redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, who passed on the NFL for one more season in Salt Lake City.
In 2020, Lloyd played in all five games, registering 48 tackles and two sacks on his way to second-team All-America honors.
Nephi Sewell returns at one linebacker spot after earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors in his first season playing the position. Keep an eye on Ethan Calvert, a true freshman linebacker and one of the highest-rated recruits in program history (the No. 77 prospect in the nation, per 247Sports).
A season after being labeled a huge question mark due to its collective youth, Utah's secondary returns virtually intact, highlighted by a budding star in sophomore cornerback Clark Phillips III, but he is not alone. After Utah sent its entire 2019 secondary to the NFL, redshirt sophomore JaTravis Broughton stepped in and had an honorable mention All-Pac-12 season. Senior Vonte Davis is set to return at one safety spot, but the other is a question mark. Freshman Nate Ritchie started all five games in 2020 at strong safety, but he is off on a two-year LDS mission. After not getting back to full health in 2020 following injuring his right knee in the 2019 Pac-12 championship game, RJ Hubert re-injured himself on the first play of the Utah spring game on April 17 and is likely out for the season. One option for that spot might be true freshman Cole Bishop.
Previewing Utah's Specialists for 2021
Placekicker Jadon Redding won a camp competition in 2020, then proceeded to make all eight of his field-goal attempts. For his career, Redding is 18-for-21 on field goals and 73-for-73 on extra points in 19 career games.
Covey was an All-Pac-12 return specialist last season, averaging 28.3 yards per kick return and 16.1 yards per punt return, including a 64-yarder for a touchdown against Oregon State.
Now a decade into its Pac-12 membership, Utah has reached the point where it is annually expected to contend for a league title, and 2021 isn't going to be any different. The Utes return talent on both sides of the ball, and if they can get the quarterback situation sufficiently dealt with — the position was a team weakness last season — they will be a factor. Brewer is the favorite to win the job, but Rising will have a say.
On paper, the schedule is favorable. Utah gets a bye week before traveling to USC on Oct. 9; it then gets another Pac-12 South contender, Arizona State, at home Oct. 16. That two-game stretch will help decide how seriously to take the Utes. If they survive that gauntlet, fans can start believing that something big can happen.
National Ranking: 26
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(Brant Kuithe photo courtesy of Utah Athletics)