UCLA Football Preview: The Utah Quarterback Mystery
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham has played his starting quarterback choice extremely close to the vest.
With the cancellation of Utah’s season opener against Arizona due to COVID-19 infections, the college football world is still yet to hear who the Utes will start at quarterback. This week’s game was set to be played Friday night, but has since been postponed to Saturday night to ensure safety and proper following of COVID-19 protocols.
At this point, two positions have been “decimated”, according to Whittingham and staff members are among those that have been infected. Right now, it’s still a day-to-day call as to whether or not this week’s game will take place. Utah is very close to falling below the required 53-man roster and is also working on moving players up the depth chart that previously had little to no playing time.
Other unknowns that hang in the balance are whether or not Utah will be able to field the required positions to play in Saturday’s game. Utah has been hit hard by this virus, and team practice schedules have also been disrupted. One undisclosed player had been hospitalized (although he had not been with the team since August) and according to Whittingham, “we’ve had some players that have become very sick, almost in the hospital”. As of Sunday, the athletic department announced they had made it through two consecutive days with no additional positive tests and were set to resume practice Monday.
Utah will be testing players daily, according to Pac-12 protocols, up until they leave for Los Angeles Friday morning and they will test again Saturday.
If the game does take place, here is a breakdown of who we could see on the field. Keep in mind that Utah has not released the names and positions of sick players.
When the Arizona matchup was still on Utah’s schedule, Whittingham was determined to keep his selection a secret, saying, “why give the opponent any lead time to prepare?”. The Utes have had a pretty tough competition at the quarterback position between grad transfer Jake Bentley, redshirt sophomore transfer Cameron Rising, and redshirt senior Drew Lisk, who is the only one in the group with playing time for Utah. It appears that is has come down to Rising and Bentley, and each brings their own positive qualities to the position.
Rising transferred to Utah from Texas and is a dual-threat quarterback from California with a 4-star rating out of high school. His ability to run gives the Utah offense more options and, with the challenges this team has been facing in recent days, this is a serious upside. He doesn’t panic if he gets flushed out of the pocket and can throw on the run with some serious mobility. The problem is just that he has no real collegiate playing experience.
Bentley, a transfer from South Carolina, was a three-year starter with the Gamecocks but does not have Rising’s legs. While he amassed 7,385 yards in three seasons, his pro-style keeps him in the pocket which limits what Utah can do at the line of scrimmage. His upside are the facts that he has a quick release and he completed 62% in his best year with South Carolina. He has the experience that Rising lacks and leadership is something this team needs right now.
The offensive line will have the task of protecting a new quarterback. That task falls to three lineman who have received Pac-12 preseason honors. Senior center Orlando Umana is on the preseason second team along with redshirt sophomore right tackle Simi Moala. At left tackle, redshirt junior Nick Ford, the most skilled lineman in the group, was given first team honors by the Pac-12. Ford replaces Darrin Paulo, who left for the NFL and was eventually picked up by the Denver Broncos. Ford is versatile and has the ability to play anywhere on the line, which is a huge upside for the team right now.
The guards will be redshirt freshman Sataoa Laumea on the right and redshirt sophomore Braeden Daniels on the left. Laumea only played in one game last year, coincidentally it was against UCLA, but was a 4-star recruit and four-year varsity starter in high school. Daniels is returning as a starter, with all 14 games in 2019 under his belt.
The Utes are tasked this year with replacing Zack Moss, who put up video game stats while at Utah, breaking records left and right. He set records for career rushing yards (4,167), career 100-yard rushing games (18) and career rushing touchdowns (38), and was the first Ute with three 1,000-yard seasons. Senior Devonta’e Henry-Cole seemed to be a top choice, but he transferred to BYU back in February. T.J. Green was also in the running, but he announced plans to enter the transfer portal a few weeks ago with two years of eligibility remaining.
Now in this new reality, junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore will be trying to fill Moss’s shoes. Brumfield has played in 21 games total and he was able to put together 59 carries for 263 yards across 14 games last year. Wilmore saw action in 12 games last year and notched 194 yards on 49 carries. Considering these guys were playing behind Moss, those stats are pretty solid. With a talented offensive line, the absence of Moss shouldn’t be an issue if both of these guys are among the healthy that can play Saturday.
Regardless of who gets the starting nod at quarterback, the top receivers are not in doubt. Here looks for redshirt junior wide receiver Britain Covey and junior tight end Brant Kuithe to lead the team. Kuithe topped the team with six touchdowns and 602 yards last year and, of course, his best game in 2019 was against UCLA where he tallied 132 receiving yards. He’s definitely a solid option and one that UCLA’s secondary will need to be ready for.
Covey has an interesting history with the Utes, beginning his career in 2015 when he topped the team with 519 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He then went on his LDS mission and returned in 2018 for a very successful season with 60 catches and 809 yards, but suffered an injury in the 2018 Pac-12 Championship game which required surgical repair of a torn ACL. He redshirted in 2019 after playing in four games and has once again emerged as a reliable slot receiver and kick and punt returner. When he gets open, he’s gone. When 100% healthy, he is a huge threat and will exploit any weaknesses in the UCLA defense.
Utah returns several other receivers that had successful 2019 seasons. Redshirt junior Bryan Thompson had 461 yards and snagged three touchdowns last year, along with redshirt senior Samson Nacua, who was second on the team with four touchdowns. It’s obvious the Utes are stacked at the receiver position and, while they may be breaking in a new quarterback, there is plenty of talent around him to offer support.
In any other week, this would be an easy call. With the evidence from last week and Utah’s history, this would be a near impossible win for the Bruins. But, it’s 2020 and the general public has absolutely no knowledge of what the Utah offense looks like right now as far as who is healthy enough to play. If they can field the required 53 men, I would still say it will be a tough climb for UCLA.