In the spring of 2011, Utah had yet to play a game as a member of the newly-minted Pac-12 Conference. The Utes were formerly the class of the Mountain West Conference, which they left behind to pursue higher heights, much stiffer competition and to experience life with the bluebloods of college football.
So, Kyle Whittingham, 10 years later, with where you and your program sit now, would you still take on all the growing pains, big wins, gut-wrenching losses all the same?
“Well, I think so in the respect that we feel we’ve made progress,” said Utah’s head coach, entering his 17th season at the helm. “We’ve got ourselves to the point where we feel we can compete with any team in the Pac-12. That wasn’t the case when we first entered the league. Although we still haven’t won the whole thing, we’ve won the South a couple of times, but winning that title is what our goal is.”
Utah has evolved in so many ways but remains staunchly dedicated to its style and ethos: Own the trenches, run the ball, avoid turnovers and have a shot at the start of the fourth quarter. The program weaved through the peaks and valleys of the first half of the last decade as the newbies, then established itself as a threat in the Pac-12 every year. Utah won consecutive Pac-12 South crowns but has come up short of winning the league.
The Utes were one second-half comeback in the 2019 title game away from the fourth and final College Football Playoff berth. Instead, Oregon squashed those dreams. The last hurdle for the program is essentially the largest one it encountered when it entered the conference in 2011: try to sway dynamic playmakers to the school, players who can take over games on their own. That remains a work in progress, but on the heels of its best two seasons in the conference — 2018 and 2019 — Utah has pieced together its best recruiting classes to date. And based on the small sample size of the five-game 2020 campaign, the youngest Utes ever are ready to lead the program to those lofty heights yet to be achieved.
There are only 19 upperclassmen in total on the 2021 roster. The rest are a slew of redshirt sophomores, freshmen and true freshman — approaching 70 underclassmen in total, per Whittingham — who are not only not up to the task but are the key ingredient to what Whittingham calls a complete team.
“We believe we’ve done a good job building the roster,” he said. “We think we’re on par with anybody.”
Quarterback: Give the Utah staff this: They live in zero trepidation regarding the transfer portal. Since the arrival of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig in January 2019, the Utes have landed four transfers from other Power 5 programs. Two of them will battle it out for the starting spot in 2021. Coaches raved about the ability of graduate senior transfer Charlie Brewer, who assimilated himself into the culture so quickly. Brewer, who chose Utah after four years as a starter at Baylor, is the favorite to start this fall.
“I feel really good about where Charlie came in and how he left spring ball,” Ludwig said. “He did a super job acclimating himself and to our offense. Obviously a veteran player with just a ton of experience and ton of composure.”
But the man with 10,000 yards of total offense to his name will still have to beat out a pseudo-incumbent. Former starter and redshirt sophomore Cam Rising is expected to be fully healthy this summer, which will allow him to go head-to-head with Brewer for the QB1 role. Rising beat out former South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley last fall only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury in the first quarter of the 2020 opener. Rising, a former Texas transfer, will have more in-depth knowledge of the offense with this being his third full year in the program under Ludwig. Ludwig did say that Rising is expected to be able to resume throwing June 1.