This really wasn't a major shock to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: His team picked third in its division in the annual preseason Pac-12 media poll.
Sure, the Utes are the two-time defending South Division champions. But they do have big holes to fill at running back, quarterback and left tackle, along with replacing a majority of their defensive starters.
The fact the Utes were picked that high pretty much reflects the respect for Whittingham, who was the conference's coach of the year a season ago.
“Everyone will have their chance to prove their case, where they belong and how good they are,” said Whittingham, whose team opens the delayed season by hosting Arizona on Nov. 7. "Whether we’re picked first, third, sixth, it doesn’t really matter to us. We’ve got to go out and play it and prove ourselves on the field."
The Utes are coming off a season in which they went 11-1 in the regular season, before losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Utah must replace Pac-12 offensive player of the year Zack Moss, along with first-team all-conference QB Tyler Huntley and left tackle Darrin Paulo. The defense, especially the secondary, requires a makeover, too.
Despite the heavy losses, it’s a roster loaded with talent. The Utes brought in one of their most decorated recruiting classes and quite a few freshmen could see significant time. That’s why the delay to the season may benefit the Utes — more time to learn and prepare.
One of the biggest challenges will be replacing Huntley, who threw for 3,092 yards and 19 scores in 2019. The candidates include graduate transfer Jake Bentley and sophomore Cam Rising.
Bentley went 19-14 while at South Carolina, finishing with 55 passing TDs and 7,527 yards passing. Rising arrived on campus for the 2019 spring semester from the University of Texas.
There’s also Drew Lisk, who played in four games last season.
Although Whittingham may not announce his starter until game week, he knows the qualities he wants to see in his offensive leader.
“He needs to show us that he has the poise, confidence and leadership factor that you are looking for in your quarterbacks. He has to be a great decision-maker,” Whittingham said. “He has to play with a ton of decisiveness. (He) can’t be on eggshells and questioning himself often."
THE RUNNING MEN
The Utes are auditioning several running backs to take the place of Moss, who’s now with the Buffalo Bills after finishing his career at Utah with a school-record 4,067 yards rushing.
Whittingham highlighted tailbacks Jordan Wilmore, Devin Brumfield, Micah Bernard and freshman Ty Jordan after a recent scrimmage. Wilmore and Brumfield have experience from a season ago. Jordan amassed 13 100-yard games during high school in Mesquite, Texas.
“He is a very dynamic, explosive player,” Whittingham said of Jordan.
Bentley, offensive lineman Orlando Umana, linebacker Devin Lloyd and defensive end Mika Tafua as the team captains. Umana was an offseason captain as well.
“Don’t read into Jake Bentley being named captain as him winning the job," Whittingham recently said. “But that is just what his peers think of him right now, which is a positive.”
There will also be another 10 players as part of the team’s 14-member leadership council.
TIGHT END PRODUCTION
The Utes bring back second-team, all-conference tight end Brant Kuithe, who had 34 catches for 602 yards and six receiving TDs. He also had three rushing scores.
In addition, they could receive a boost from tight end Dalton Kincaid, who’s working on becoming eligible by the NCAA after joining the team from the University of San Diego. He led all FCS tight ends in yards per catch (18.98) last season. His 835 yards receiving were second among FCS tight ends.
The Utes have established daily testing protocols along with weekly PCR tests. The team follows the CDC recommendations for health and safety.
A game against Oregon State on Dec. 5 will be the latest Utah has played a home game since 1903. The Utes’ only home game in December since then was against UCLA on Dec. 1, 1962.
Games lost due to the truncated season include one against No. 11 BYU.
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