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Utah football: How will Utes fare being the hunted in the Pac-12?

It’s a new era of sorts for Utah’s football program.

A decade removed from joining the Pac-12 Conference, the Utes captured their first Pac-12 championship and earned their first Rose Bowl berth last season.

Utah, which has advanced to the Pac-12 championship game three of the last four years, is not only expected to be the favorite to win the league again, but it could contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

In its way-too-early top-25 rankings released last weekend, ESPN slotted the Utes at No. 4.

No doubt, in the Pac-12, Utah, which finished No. 12 in the final Associated Press rankings in 2021will be viewed as the program to beat.

“It’s understanding that we are the team with a target on our back. Everybody is going to be coming for us. We’re no longer that underdog team where they just overlook us,” said Utes wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “Now we’re one of those powerhouses and when they think of the Pac-12, they think of Utah, not just USC or Oregon or Washington.

“It’s just understanding that role and being able to step into that spotlight and not shying away from it. It’s keeping that confidence and understanding what we need to do and still maintaining the same energy that we had last year. It’s being 22% better. It’s understanding our role. We’re a powerhouse now in the Pac-12. We’ve just got to keep it that way.”

Utah wrapped up spring practices last Saturday with its annual spring game.

The Utes are proud to be the reigning Pac-12 champions, but they certainly aren’t satisfied.

“We’re the champs and we’ve got to act like the champs. (Defensive coordinator Morgan) Scalley always mentions after practice that we’re the ones with the target on our backs. It’s something to protect,” said defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi. “We’re on the throne and we’ve got to protect it. Understanding the great feeling of being the champs, we’ve got to keep it going. We know we’re capable. It’s really encouraging and it gives us that confidence and that encouragement to work harder and take it another step further.”

The Utes kick off the 2022 season on Sept. 3 against SEC opponent Florida at 88,548-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — popularly known as “The Swamp” — in Gainesville.

The fact that Utah faces such a tough test in the season opener, it should provide plenty of motivation during the summer.

“There is no easing into the season. It’s down to Florida, in ‘The Swamp’, in Game 1,” said Coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s not like we have the luxury of having things develop and going through some growing pains early in the year. We’ve got to be ready to go right from (the start).”

‘Attacking’ the title

Even if Utah was playing a junior high team in the opener, Whittingham would never allow his team to wallow in complacency.

“Definitely not. There’s no room for complacency,” Vele said. “Coach Whitt would never allow that. I would never want to show even a hint of complacency in front of that man.”

Quarterback Cam Rising said despite being the defending Pac-12 champs, the team still has a chip on its shoulder.

“You have to go out there and attack it. That’s what the coaches have told us to do. Yeah, we won it last year and that doesn’t mean that this year’s trophy is in our case right now just sitting there,” he said. “We have to go out there and attack it and treat it the same way we did last year so that we’re going about it the right way and making sure we get back to the championship and go win it.”

“We’ve talked about this as a team. The idea is not defending (the title). We’re going to attack it again,” said tight end Dalton Kincaid. “If we were defending it, I think we’d be pulling back. We’re going to put the throttle down and just go at it again. We know we’re going to get everyone’s best shot every week. We’re looking forward to that.”

Left tackle Braeden Daniels said the mindset of the team going into next season is simple.

“We know we won the Pac-12 last year. We know that’s not our trophy this year — that’s something we have to go and get,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be easy and we’ve got to be physical each and every week. If we want to get what we said we want, we’ve got to come out here and get better every day.”

Vele said the key to repeating as Pac-12 champs is “keeping that same mentality” as last year.

“We need to buy into what the coaches tell us,” he said. tight end Munir McClain. “I think we can repeat this same thing as long as we do what we need to do.”

Another trip to the Rose Bowl is something else that will motivate the Utes during the summer.

“It was a cool feeling to play and to be there. We want to have that feeling again,” Kaufusi said. “We loved it so much, we want to get back there.”

Now that spring practices are over, here’s where the Utes’ offense, defense and special teams stand.

offense

Much of the optimism surrounding the 2022 campaign can be attributed to the return of Rising, the Utes’ star quarterback.

“We know Cam’s our guy. We’ve just got to work those guys behind him and see what happens,” Whittingham said. “We have a first-team all-conference quarterback coming back to lead us. That’s a huge positive for us.”

“Having that guy, you already know what he can do for our offense,” said Daniels. “It’s really exciting. You just want to go out there, block for him and give it your all.”

offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig loves working with Rising, who can do damage with both his arm and his legs. And he’s experienced.

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Utah quarterback Cameron Rising pitches during practice for the Rose Bowl game against Ohio State at a field at Harbor College in Wilmington, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“He’s been through it. It’s his fourth year in the system. He’s everything we’re looking for in that type of experience in that position. His track record of him, the things that he’s gone through — the injury, getting beat out, battling back… the guy exudes confidence, ”Ludwig said. “He rallies the whole troops on offense and is well-respected throughout the team. He’s invaluable on the field in terms of tangibles. Absolutely invaluable with his intangibles.”

Rising has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including tight ends Kincaid and Brant Kuithe; running backs Tavion Thomas and Jaylon Glover; and receivers Vele and Solomon Enis.

Whittingham said Vele’s emergence is “big for Cam. He’s got a guy that he has great chemistry with. … If Devaughn can stay healthy and if he can continue to make the plays he made all spring long, and carry that over into fall camp and into the season, he could have a big year for us.”

While the Utes lost a couple of key offensive linemen, they return a solid nucleus, along with young talent.

“We’ve identified eight guys that are absolutely ready to play. That doesn’t include Jaren Kump or Paul Maile, who were not available for spring football. We think we’re going to have a solid two-deep, 10 guys that we can count on,” Whittingham said. “We have a front five that will be playing together from the onset. We’ll have much more of a head start than last year.

“Last year we had a lot of injuries up front and we were shuffling the deck seemingly every day, particularly in fall camp. If we can stay healthy, that O-line can be ready to roll and be very productive in Game 1.”

Defense

linebackers Devin Lloyda projected first-round NFL draft pick, and Nephi Sewell have moved on but Utah has a lot of returning players, and talented newcomers, on the defensive side of the ball.

Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, left and Utah defensive end Van Fillinger celebrate.

Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, left celebrates an interception against Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

defensive lineman Junior Tafuna was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2021. And cornerback Clark Phillips and safety Cole Bishop anchor the defensive secondary.

The Utes will benefit from Florida transfer linebacker Mohamoud Diabatewho didn’t participate in spring drills as he recovered from an injury, but he should make a big impact on the defense.

“He’s performed at an elite level already in the SEC,” said Scalley. “For him, a lot of it is getting the terminology down and understanding our scheme and our culture. He loves it and we love him.”

Whittingham was impressed with freshman linebacker Lander Bartonthe younger brother of Cody and Jackson Barton.

Utah had a handful of defensive backs sidelined during the spring due to injuries. But Whittingham is confident that the secondary will be a strength next fall.

“In the final analysis, we’ll be pretty good in the secondary. Cole Bishop is going to be a heckuva football player for us,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of talent back there. We’ve just got to get those guys to come together and gel in fall camp.”

special teams

If there’s one thing keeping Whittingham up at night, it’s special teams.

The Utes no longer have return specialist extraordinaire, Britain Covey, and they struggled at times last season in kickoff return coverage. They also had a couple of points blocked.

“Special teams is something until we get it completely solidified, it’s a concern,” Whittingham said. “It can’t be a one-time thing. Every position group is coming along fairly well. The main issue right now is special teams.”

‘Small details’

During the summer, Utah is planning to continue to make improvements as it seeks another Pac-12 championship.

“Finding those small details that we can work on that will really make a difference in the season,” Rising said. “We were so productive throughout the entire spring. We’ve got to make sure that we’re building on it and not taking any steps back during that time.”

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