2022 Pac-12 Football Previews: Utes Reloading on Defense


Posted on June 13, 2022





  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

This Utah preseason football preview is the second of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on September 1st.

Pac-12Each preview consists of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.

Utah Utes Fast Facts


2021 Record: 10-4
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (144-70 in 18 years at Utah)
Offensive Coordinator: Andy Ludwig
Defensive Coordinator: Morgan Scalley
Home Stadium: Rice-Eccles (45,807) Salt Lake City, UT
Last Conference Title: 2021


Overview

Coming off the program’s first-ever Rose Bowl appearance, the sky appears to be the limit for Utah Football in 2022.

Cameron Rising returns along with running backs Tavion Thomas and Micah Bernard, bolstering a ground attack that should once again be at the top of the Pac-12.

Tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid are back, too, along with wide receiver Devaughn Vele. With so many weapons on offense, it’s safe to say Utah won’t miss a beat on that side of the ball.

Brant Kuithe | Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

But scratch beneath the surface and some worrying cracks on defense begin to show.

Defensive lineman Xavier Carlton, safety Kamo’i Latu, and linebacker Carson Tabaracci all transferred out. Meanwhile, stalwarts Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell moved on to the NFL.

Depth in the secondary is a legitimate concern, along with the gaping hole left in the linebacker corps.

Florida LB transfer Mohamoud Diabate has been brought in through the portal, and the stage is set for redshirt freshman Ethan Calvert to contribute.

Reports out of spring camp indicate sophomore Karene Reid could emerge as one of the leaders at the position, as well.

Blend in the addition of the program’s fifth-highest rated recruit in freshman LB Lander Barton, and the Utes should have a solid, though inexperienced corps.

Fortunately, corner Clark Phillips III is a preseason Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the capstone of Utah’s defense.

The All-Conference defensive back is boosted by an elite defensive line, anchored by Junior Tafuna and Van Fillinger, that help put Kyle Whittingham’s team in a position to make a run at the Playoff.


Best-Case Scenario

The Utes open the season with a win at Florida and generate early discussion about their Playoff chances.

Rising’s mobility and decision-making prove to be the difference for a second-straight year, leading Utah to a 5-0 start and Top 5 ranking by the second week of October.

The momentum continues with a close victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl, followed by a dominating victory over USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Utah celebrates its 2021 Pac-12 title. | Pac-12 Conference

The Utes enter the mid-November matchup at Oregon as a Top 2 team and the Conference’s best shot to make the Playoff.

Regardless of the outcome in Eugene, Whittingham’s squad returns to the Pac-12 Championship game for the fourth time in five seasons, carried by elite line play on both sides of the ball.

A victory in Las Vegas results in the Conference of Champions’ first invitation to the Playoff since 2016, as Utah cements its image as the face of the league.


Worst Case Scenario

The defense struggles due to the losses of Lloyd and Sewell, with Diabate’s shoulder injury nagging him into the season and Reid unable to carry the burden alone.

The experience issues remain all year, as neither Calvert nor Barton are ready to contribute.

The result is a team that gives up touchdowns in pivotal moments, losing close games that the Utes should’ve been able to win.

Utah’s Karene Reid | Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports.

The run defense is particularly affected by the issues at linebacker, giving up third-down conversions at a sickening rate.

And while Phillips III generates interceptions, the secondary is worn down against speedy receiver corps, like those of USC and Oregon.

The combination of issues on the second and third levels lead to defeats against the Bruins, Trojans, and Ducks in conference play.


What Should Happen

The offensive strength in Salt Lake City carries the day, week-in and week-out.

Rising’s threat to run was the most under-rated X-Factor in Utah’s resurgence after starting the 2021 season 1-2.

Questionably passed over in the Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year Award, his mobility changes the game.

Defenses are forced to account for his legs, creating hesitancy every snap and forcing opposing coordinators to adjust their scheme and formations.

The practical result is open lanes for Utah’s running backs and space for its receivers and tight ends.

Utah RB Tavion ThomasUtah Athletics

It worked like magic last season, and nearly all of his weapons return with him.

Compounded with defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s track record and Whittingham’s modus operandi of developing talent, any questions on defense will likely be resolved early in the year.

At the end of the season, Utah should be back in the Pac-12 Championship Game and emerge with a second-straight victory in Vegas.


What Must Happen

Apart from the emergence of a consistent linebacker corps, the Utes’ special teams must improve.

The loss of Britain Covey in the return game promises to bite, but the punting and kicking problems must be addressed.

Former Utah great Britain Covey will be missed. | Utah Athletics

Whittingham’s team gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and had two punts blocked that were returned for TDs in 2021.

That’s not going to cut it for a team expecting to make the Playoff.

But fixing the special teams problem could be meaningless if Utah’s inexperienced linebacker corps fail to meet expectations.


Greatest Strength

The returning experience at the offensive skill positions is among the top in the nation, let alone the Pac-12.

The combination of returning weapons in the running back, tight end, receiver, and quarterback position groups are arguably unmatched.

Yet, it’s Utah’s offensive line that carries the day. Often overlooked in the grand scheme of it all, the front line is the key.

Braeden Daniels | Joel Davidson/UteZone

Braeden Daniels and Sataoa Laumea are the anchors of the unit, but Whittingham boosts 15 listed OL on the Spring Roster, with 12 checking in at over 300-pounds.

Incoming freshmen Tyler Knaak and Keith Olson are both in the same weight class as well, adding to the rich depth up front.

The strength along the line proved to be the difference against Oregon last season and should continue to distinguish Utah as the class of the Conference.


Biggest Concern

Like a broken record playing at full blast, Utah’s linebackers are a glaring cause for concern.

Sewell and Lloyd played nearly every snap last year, keeping young guns such as Calvert off the field.

The dearth of experience was such a problem that Whittingham had to go to the portal instead of promoting talent from within, a somewhat unusual move for a program known for its development.

Utah’s Ethan Calvert | Shotgun Spratling/247Sports

But the situation was arguably desperate, and Diabate might turn out to be the most impactful transfer in the Pac-12.

Still, additional options must emerge if Utah is going to repeat as champions. Calvert and Barton are the program’s third and fifth-highest-rated recruits and must live up to their rankings.


Deciding Factors

Keeping Rising healthy figures to play a decisive role in Utah’s season.

The contribution he brings to the table is pivotal and any injuries to the leader of the offense could be difficult to overcome.

Ja’Quinden Jackson probably ends up as the second-string, although true freshman Brandon Rose received praise from offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig during Spring Camp.

Utah OC Andy Ludwig | Brent Carden/247Sports

Getting reps for the backups could prove difficult, however, with a nonconference slate of Florida and San Diego State.

The only obvious option for gaining experience is the Southern Utah game in Week Two.

The apparent lack of depth at QB is arguably the only flaw in Utah’s entire offense. Still, how many teams in the country would struggle if their QB No. 1 went down?

And with an offensive line that’s among the best in the nation, the Utes should feel comfortable with Rising making plays with his legs when needed.


Schedule Analysis

2022 Utah Utes Schedule


Sept. 3 at Florida
Sept. 1o vs Southern Utah
Sept. 17 vs San Diego State
Sept. 24 at Arizona State
Oct. 1 vs Oregon State
Oct. 8 at UCLA
Oct. 15 vs USC
Oct. 29 at Washington State
Nov. 5 vs Arizona
Nov. 12 vs Stanford
Nov. 19 at Oregon
Nov. 26 at Colorado

With one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, UU has the potential to reach the Playoff without running the table.

Normally, Pac-12 schools have to go undefeated or have a respectable one-loss season to get in.

That probably won’t be any different this year, and Utah’s slate of Florida and San Diego State could set them above whichever one-loss team comes out of the Big 12 or ACC.

In conference play, the road game at UCLA figures to be the first real test of the season and it’s immediately followed by a home matchup against USC.

Utah vs USC in 2021 | Kevin Cody/The Daily Utah Chronicle

That two-week stretch could define the season, with the remaining questionable game coming at Oregon in mid-November.

Other than those three contests, Utah should roll to a minimum of six wins in conference play.

At worst, the Utes go 2-1 in nonconference with the “L” coming to Florida, and finish the regular season 8-4.

At best, Whittingham’s team strings together an 11-1 regular season, with a victory in the Pac-12 Championship game that’s rewarded with a Playoff invitation.


—More from Dane Miller—

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