The entrance music was appropriate.
As the quarterback ran down the field, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” blared from the speakers – a nod to the player’s name and the trouble he was about to cause the opposing defense.
There are plenty of questions for Kyle Whittingham to answer after his most successful, triumphant, and tragic season as head coach. But as Utah wraps up spring camp this week, one thing has become clear: The Utes are now Cameron Rising’s team.
In another school, in another team, it may not be important. But in Utah, a program rooted in defense and special teams, it’s a bizarre turn of events that this most recent, perhaps the most demanding edition in school history, is led by a quarterback. -back. Then again, things have never been so different in the world of college football and it stands to reason that Utah football would follow.
How far can Cam Rising take the Utes?
When asked what he thought of one of his team’s spring scrums, Whittingham used the word “outstanding” to describe the team’s play in an atmosphere where Rising and wide receiver Devaughn Vele were apparently found and exploited every seam in Utah’s defense. Whittingham struggled to hide his excitement while talking about the budding connection between quarterback and receiver.
The excitement surrounding Rising seemed to come to a head last season. After taking over following the departure of Charlie Brewer, Rising’s leadership was immediately noticeable. He connected within the team and with his fan base.
But what Rising did this spring was fill in the gaps.
He’s progressing quickly in his progressions, to the point where the offense feels comfortable running at different speeds – more like a Formula 1 race than NASCAR. Rising navigates the pitch with the precision of a Lewis Hamilton or a Max Verstappen (depending on your fandom), and his faith in the system and where to go with the ball has seeped into more than attack.
While last season Utah’s defense had a generational knack in Devin Lloyd to balance things out, Rising has risen well to his teammate’s challenge and will be looking to improve not only his own stock but also the results of the previous season. He will need to stay healthy, and he still has work to do on the deep throws and will need to continue to focus on the day-to-day that he is known for, but for the first time in a very long time, Utah football is a team led first and foremost by the quarterback.
Now it’s up to Rising to decide how far the Utes can go.
What weapons does Rising have?
The attacking side of football have returned a cadre of talent at the tight end – and the position that looks to be one of the best in the country. Vele’s emergence helps a wide receiving room that has steadily improved since the arrival of wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis, and while there may be an extra receiver or two added to the group via the transfer portal, there are reasons to feel confident about the position as a whole. Add to that the return of running back Tavion Thomas and several starters on the offensive line – specifically Braeden Daniels switching from right tackle to left tackle – and it looks like Utah has what it needs on offense to be competent. .
The intrigue and the X-factor could come from some newcomers, especially announced rookie Jaylon Glover. Glover has been on the tip of every coach’s tongue in post-workout comments, and the 5-foot-7, 211-pound running back from Lake Gibson, Florida brings a resume that looks eerily comparable to previous stars Zack Moss and Ty Jordan.
At receiver, Makai Cope and Money Parks recently joined Vele to receive praise from Whittingham. It’s important because, although Britain Covey didn’t set any records with his production last season, he impacted the team with his big-play potential and his knack for kickstarting the attack when they needed it the most.
Utah will need a mix of the aforementioned expansions to move forward in these moments if they are to repeat the success of the Pac-12 Championship team from last season.
How will Utah replace Devin Lloyd?
Utah’s Pac-12 championship hopes, a trip to a second Rose Bowl or even a playoff berth, can’t sit squarely on the shoulders of the offense.
Defense wins championships, right?
Here’s where the Utes have more questions to answer, starting with life without linebacker Devin Lloyd. Replacing it is impossible; there are simply no generational players waiting in the wings for any program, let alone Utah.
And it wasn’t just Lloyd who left a hole in Utah’s defense. Nearly 40% of Utah’s tackles last season came from a quartet of Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell, Brandon McKinnie and Vonte Davis, all of whom left the program.
For more perspective, 46 players are listed as having registered at least one tackle last season, and the four listed above accounted for almost half of that. Saying Utah replaces a lot doesn’t necessarily bury the lead, but it will be how Utah replaces Lloyd and Mika Tafua’s combined tackles and 17.5 sacks that will count.
The good news? The next three names on the list are Clark Phillips III, Cole Bishop and Karene Reid, all of whom return with resumes that Utah fans can actually imagine watching them play last season and the coaching staff hasn’t. spared no effort to praise their development.
Add to that Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna bringing 10 sacks between them in their first full season and there are indications the closet isn’t empty when it comes to talent.
Still, Utah depended, both in impact and scheme, on Lloyd and Sewell and the arrival of new defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss initiated a change in philosophy up front. Last year it was all about letting Lloyd and Sewell sink to make tackles. As talent and depth on the inside become the strength of this year’s defense, it will lead Utah to ask more of their front line to tackle and gain pressure rather than just occupying blockers. .
It’s not a sweeping start: Utah has relied on the defensive line to wreak havoc on offenses before, and a potential starting unit of Fillinger, Tafuna, Vimahi and Miki Suguturaga (who several coaches have named in addition to Jonah Elliss as the potential starter opposite Fillinger) has a lot of potential.
Utah has talent behind the top four; Phillips is already catching the eye of NFL scouts and Bishop isn’t far behind, despite being just a sophomore.
But the heart of the defense will beat to the rhythm of the production of men in the trenches, which is a fitting return to the roots some might say Elliss started years ago.
Can Utah solve its special teams problems?
When Utah started in the Pac-12, one of the few areas where the team was able to win battles week after week was on special teams, an area often overlooked by coaches and players alike. of their preparation each week.
Whittingham’s approach to special teams has created unlikely heroes among punters and kickers like Tom Hackett, Andy Phillips, Mitch Wishnowsky and Matt Gay.
As unusual as it was to see punters and kickers as fan favorites, it allowed Utah to compete long enough for the talent around them to catch up. Now, while other areas have improved, special teams seem to have taken a step back.
Covey was the unit’s clear bright spot with his punt and kick returns, and there’s simply no Covey replacement on the roster, either in terms of athleticism or skill. overall impact.
Covey’s replacement remains unstable: Vele seems the most likely candidate and Whittingham has mentioned others, including former Bingham High star Braedon Wissler. But expecting them to step into the role magnified by Covey seems like a bad idea.
Of greater concern were Utah’s struggles to return the ball safely, and the mistakes arguably cost them a road game against Oregon State. Utah can be good enough to ride out mistakes if they reappear this season, however, and with the return of Michael Williams and Cameron Peasley to the punter, there’s reason to expect improvement.
It just might be that Utah needs to be just “good enough” on special teams. While that might be a fit for fans, good enough could have put Utah in the college football playoff conversation had they won at Oregon State.
So… can the Utes repeat to the Pac-12 champions?
The Whittingham team faces another challenge for the first time in its career: the task of repeating as Pac-12 champions.
Last season was one for the ages, with a team bonding after the truly tragic loss of teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl – an ending that didn’t quite live up to the storybook as Ohio State defeated the Utes on objective ground to end the game’s final practice.
Utah has been a culture dependent program to help them through the worst times.
This culture has never faced such a complex challenge on the ground until now. With success comes attention, expectations, the natural human reaction to relax and become complacent. It becomes easy to be distracted.
For a program that has been built and rooted in what Whittingham likes to call “the process” for so long, it seems fitting that Utah’s success depends primarily on its ability to stay disciplined on the very principle and foundation that Whittingham preached throughout his career.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
And for Utah fans hoping to visit Pasadena again in January, that might be the mantra they need as we head into the 2022 season.
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