The last time the University of Utah football team took the field, it did so at the Rose Bowl, capping a landmark season for Kyle Whittingham's program.
Winners of a third Pac-12 South title in four seasons, the Utes finally got over the hump, winning the Pac-12 championship game and advancing to "The Granddaddy of Them All."
Last season's 10-win campaign is in the rearview mirror, but with many of the principal characters from that run returning in 2022, there is a healthy dose of optimism that Utah can accomplish those feats again, if not more.
Previewing Utah's Offense for 2022
Now a fifth-year junior, Cameron Rising lost a fall camp quarterback competition to Charlie Brewer, but things eventually came back around to Rising. He entered the fray in Week 3 at San Diego State and became the full-time starter in Week 4, and Utah never looked back. The Utes went 9–2 with Rising under center as he threw for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions while completing 63.8 percent of his passes.
Five of Utah's top six pass-catchers from 2021 are again at Rising's disposal, led by tight ends Brant Kuithe (50 catches, 611 yards, six TDs) and Dalton Kincaid (36 catches, 510 yards, eight TDs), both of whom flirted with the NFL Draft before opting for one more year of school.
There are questions at wide receiver with do-everything slot Britain Covey now gone. Devaughn Vele projects as WR1 after showing flashes last season, with Jaylen Dixon and Solomon Enis both figuring into the mix. Money Parks had a productive spring and could be the answer to replace Covey out of the slot.
A crowded situation at running back last fall eventually gave way to Tavion Thomas, who finished with 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns and then spurned the NFL for one more go-around in college. Thomas and Micah Bernard are veteran options, while four-star freshman Jaylon Glover is in line for immediate carries after a stat-filled career at Lake Gibson (Fla.) High School.
Utah's offensive line, a major strength as 2021 wore on, will see some shuffling with Nick Ford and Bamidele Olaseni gone to the NFL. The major question is what Whittingham will do with Jaren Kump, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Kump was recruited as a tackle but could kick inside to center given his versatility. Braeden Daniels appears a safe bet to replace Olaseni at left tackle, but the question then becomes who takes over for Daniels at his right tackle spot. Kump could also slot in there, possibly leaving center to Paul Maile, who started a handful of games there last season.
Previewing Utah's Defense for 2022
The major spring practice storyline within Utah's defense was what happens at linebacker with Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell both gone to the NFL.
Linebackers coach Colton Swan has a deep stable of options, but three stand out among the rest for those two starting spots. Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate missed all of spring practice with a shoulder injury but is expected to be ready for fall camp. Karene Reid is a known commodity after playing in 10 games in 2021, including six starts, and freshman Lander Barton has the chops to make an immediate impact.
The back end has fewer questions than it did at the end of last season. All-Pac-12 cornerback JaTravis Broughton missed most of last season with a shoulder injury but is back healthy to pair with Clark Phillips III, along with Malone Mataele. Depth on the outside behind Broughton and Phillips was an issue late last season and is a question now heading into fall.
Sophomore Cole Bishop emerged late last season as potentially the next great Utah safety, while R.J. Hubert, beset by injuries for much of the last two seasons, is ready to return. Those two, plus incoming Illinois State transfer and two-time FCS All-American Clayton Isbell, will vie for the two safety spots.
Whittingham was pleased with his defensive line during spring practice. Van Fillinger will anchor one end spot, with Stanford transfer Gabe Reid likely at the other. Keep an eye on defensive tackle, where Junior Tafuna emerged in late September, earning Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Previewing Utah's Specialists for 2022
Whittingham, a former special teams coach, lamented the troubles there throughout last season, specifically at punter. Between Cameron Peasley and Michael Williams, three punts were blocked last season, and a fourth block was called off due to a penalty. Peasley entered the portal in the spring, so the job belongs to Williams.
Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyes also went through an in-season competition after Redding initially won the job out of camp. Redding, a former All-Pac-12 performer, ended last season with the job, while Noyes generally handles kickoff duties.
The big hole to fill is at return specialist, which Covey manned as one of the nation's best. A number of guys could slide in for punts and kickoffs, including Vele, Dixon and Phillips.
Related: Pac-12 2022 All-Conference Team
There has been considerable hype around Utah based on what it accomplished last season, and also on who is coming back.
Utah, second in the Pac-12 and 14th nationally in points per game, will score. If the defense can get the linebacker situation figured out, the Utes are a legitimate favorite to win the Pac-12 South and Pac-12 titles again. The opener at Florida will help determine if they are a viable College Football Playoff contender.
National Ranking: 8
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