The UCLA Bruins (0-1) are set to welcome the Utah Utes (0-0) in Week 2 of the Pac-12 Football season, shortened of course, to seven games for each. Well, actually to six games for the Utes after they were forced to cancel their season-opening game against Arizona due to a COVID-19 outbreak that left them without the requisite number of scholarship athletes available.
While we do not know which players are going to be held back potentially for the Utes due to contact-tracing protocols as well as positive test results that continue to impact the Utes and the state of Utah in general, we do know that as late as Tuesday night and even into Wednesday morning, the Utes were on the button with 53 scholarship student-athletes ready to play.
We also know that the Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has stated that they’re preparing scout-team players to be ready to play meaningful snaps against UCLA in what has become Utah’s season opener.
So aside from the unknown of which players may or may not play, and if the game will still be able to be played, here’s what we do know about the Utah football roster this season:
They’ll field a new-look backfield
The term ‘generational talent’ is tossed around all too lightly around football and collegiate athletics in general. But, still, that’s exactly what running back Zack Moss was for the Utes over the past few years. He was consistently among the nation’s most elusive running backs and was a bellcow in the college ranks. His departure to the Buffalo Bills is only compounded by the fact that they lost long-time starting quarterback Tyler Huntley to graduation and the NFL as well.
Replacing starters at two of the most important positions for an offense like Utah is difficult, replacing two starters who got their work in at the next level is another factor. Coach Whittingham has shown he can replace players on the defensive side of the ball but little is known about how well or how quickly he’ll replace both Huntley and Moss in the backfield.
Former South Carolina starting quarterback Jake Bentley transferred to Salt Lake City this offseason with hopes of earning the starting nod and potentially revitalizing a once-promising career for a single season before he attempts to make it in the NFL. They also received another transfer in former Texas QB Cameron Rising, who committed to Texas, spent a year in Austin and has now transferred west to vie for the starting job with Bentley.
Preseason word was all about Bentley getting the nod but some insiders think it will be Rising who takes the majority of the reps as the starting quarterback and here’s what we know about him:
Rising was the 11th-ranked pro-style quarterback for the recruiting class in 2018. He was the 33rd-ranked player from the state of California and he stands at 6’1, 235. He has yet to take a snap as a collegiate quarterback but did throw for over 3,200 yards during his dramatic 2015 high school season that saw him also connect with 40 touchdowns to just one interception.
Only a few truly know who will be trotting out for the first series but either way, it won’t be Huntley, and it won’t be an easy task for UCLA to stop as they just allowed a safety-transitioning-to-quarterback Sam Noyer carve up their defense.
Their pass-catchers and offensive line have some common names
Gone are Demari Simpkins and Jaylen Dixon but back are important names to know for the UCLA secondary and linebacking corps: WRs Britain Covey and Bryan Thompson as well as tight end Brant Kuithe. Covey has hauled in 113 receptions in his career for 1233 yards while Thompson had a breakout year for his standards with 461 yards on just 18 catches last year with three scores. Kuithe could very well be on his way as one of the best tight ends in college football and had 34 receptions for 602 yards and six touchdowns a season ago.
On the offensive line, they bring back four starters and that’s a unit that includes potential NFL draft selections in Nick Ford and Orlando Umana. The UCLA front will have to bring their A-game against this massively-talented unit.
But their defense is set to be completely different
As mentioned prior, coach Whittingham does know a thing or two about defense and replacing defensive stars. For UCLA’s sake here, however, this is arguably one of the toughest ‘replacement’ or ‘reloading’ a defensive unit has ever had to do.
The Utes lose 10 of the top 12 players who played the most snaps for them defensively. Their 2019 defense was historically good and included the following players:
S Terrell Burgess (third-round pick by Los Angeles Rams)
LB Francis Bernard (signed FA contract with Dallas Cowboys)
DE Bradlee Anae (fifth-round pick by Dallas)
CB Jaylon Johnson (second-round pick by Chicago Bears)
CB Javelin Guidry (signed FA contract with New York Jets, ran fastest 40-yard dash time at Combine)
S Julian Blackmon (third-round pick by Indianapolis Colts)
DI John Penisini (sixth-round pick by Detroit Lions)
DI Leki Fotu (fourth-round pick by Arizona Cardinals)
CB Josh Nurse (signed FA contract with Baltimore)
CB Tareke Lewis (graduated)
That leaves LB Devin Lloyd and DE Mika Tafua as the only players who played more than 400 snaps last season for the Utes defense. That’s NFL-caliber players across the field and several of which are starting as rookies and making significant contributions right away.
There’s reloading a defense, or a team, but that’s a ton to replace. Odds are there will be lapses on this Utah defense and trouble spots.
And rumor has it as well that the position group hit hardest from the COVID-19 positives is the defensive line unit — which is already a thin group as is.
We’ll see how it all shakes out based on what we know. And we’ll see if we can even get this game kicked off come Saturday.