Optimism is at full strength as Utah has commenced its spring football camp ahead of the 2018 season. The Utes return 18 full- or part-time starters from last season's team that went 7-6 and beat West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. With multiple Pac-12 South teams in rebuilding mode this season, the door is wide open for Utah to climb the ladder.
Earning a divisional title in the Pac-12 would be the latest highlight in a storied career for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. He is entering his 25th season on the sidelines as an assistant or head coach. Whittingham owns a 111-56 career record since becoming head coach. He holds the NCAA record for best bowl win percentage (92 percent) with an 11-1 bowl record. Utah has finished in the AP Top 25 rankings three times in the past four seasons under Whittingham.
With spring practices kicking off on Monday, here's a guide on what to keep an eye on until things wrap up with the annual Red-White Game on April 14.
5 Storylines to Watch During Utah's Spring Practice
1. Who will emerge as the backup quarterback?
Things haven't looked this promising for the Utes at quarterback in a long time. Tyler Huntley is coming off a breakout sophomore season. Battling for playing time behind him are redshirt freshman Jason Shelley and four-star true freshman Jack Tuttle.
Huntley unveiled explosive playmaking abilities after winning the starting job in 2017. He threw for 2,411 yards and rushed for 537 yards. His 63.8 completion percentage ranked third in the Pac-12 while ranking 19th in the nation in total offense (294.8 ypg). He became the first Utah quarterback to have back-to-back 300-yard passing games since Brian Johnson in 2008.
It's a safe bet Huntley will remain the starter in 2018. Shelley and Tuttle should offer an intriguing battle for the no. 2 spot. Shelley is a dual-threat quarterback who passed for 8,772 yards and 84 touchdowns and rushed for 3,163 yards and 54 touchdowns over three seasons at Lone Star High School in Frisco, Texas. Tuttle threw for 3,171 yards and 41 touchdowns with just four interceptions during his senior season at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, California.
2. Who will step up as the lead receivers?
Utah's top two receivers from last season are gone. Darren Carrington graduated and Raelon Singleton transferred from the program. Their departure opens the door for several receivers to step forward and take on a larger role within the offense.
Juniors Siaosi Mariner and Demari Simpkins are poised to build on promising sophomore seasons. Mariner tallied 393 yards on 20 catches while Simpkins 354 yards on 29 receptions. Samson Nacua and Britain Covey, when he rejoins the Utes for fall camp, will give Utah some solid options at slot receiver. Covey led the Utes with 41 receptions in 2015 before departing for a two-year LDS mission.
Newcomer Solomon Enis could make an immediate impact. Over three seasons at Phoenix-area North Canyon High School, the 6-foot-4 receiver totaled 2,334 yards and 31 total touchdowns. Redshirt freshmen Bronson Boyd and Jaylen Dixon, as well as sophomore Tyquez Hampton, also could factor into the offense once the fall arrives.
3. How will the defensive line evolve?
Only one starter, Bradlee Anae, is returning on the defensive line for Utah this season. Still, the Utes are not lacking in talent or depth in their front four. Several experienced rotation players are back.
Anae will shift over to left end this season. He showed great potential as a pass rusher at right end last season. Anae led Utah in sacks (7.0) and was a co-leader in tackles for a loss (10.0) in 2017. He ranked in the top 10 in the Pac-12 for sacks and in the top 20 for TFL. The junior will be a clear leader for this unit in the spring and fall.
Maxs Tupai, a redshirt sophomore, will start at right end. Sophomores Davir Hamilton and Nick Heninger also are in the mix at defensive end. Leki Fotu, a junior, is the new starter at left tackle with sophomore Hauati Pututau backing him up. Pita Tonga, a sophomore, and John Penisini, a junior, are battling at right tackle. Tupai, Fotu, Tonga, Heninger and Penisini all saw time in the rotation a season ago and are capable of making a bigger impact this year.
4. Who will emerge at linebacker?
After graduating both starting linebackers from last season, it looked like Utah would be a little thin at the position coming into 2018. That's not the case any longer.
Chase Hansen will move up to rover linebacker from safety and could flourish in his new role. When fully healthy, Hansen is a vicious hitter and a ball hawk. During his sophomore season in 2016, Hansen tied for second nationally in fumble recoveries (4). He also led Utah in tackles (90), passes defended (12) and pass breakups (9) and ranked in the top 12 among Pac-12 players in all three categories.
Cody Barton and Donovan Thompson both have experience as starters and will battle it out at Mack linebacker. Last season, Barton ranked second on the team with 4.0 sacks and was the Pac-12 co-leader with three fumble recoveries. Thompson tallied 38 tackles and three pass breakups a year ago.
5. What will Gary Andersen's impact be on the defense?
Once Andersen parted ways with Oregon State last season, it seemed inevitable that he would find his way back to Utah. Andersen returns to the Utes after serving as a defensive line coach under Ron McBride from 1997-2002 and again under Urban Meyer in ‘04. He served as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach under Whittingham from 2005-08.
Andersen will work alongside Lewis Powell on the defensive line. Powell will coach the defensive ends while Andersen will oversee the interior tackles. He also will serve as associate head coach. Andersen will oversee recruiting in the state of Utah where he has a track record for reeling in top talent.
The defense should flourish under Andersen. During his previous stints with the Utes, Andersen helped produce 19 first-team all-conference players and 16 NFL draft picks. Two of his players, Eric Weddle and Paul Kruger, earned All-American honors during their time at Utah.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)