SALT LAKE CITY — Although the reason for canceling it obviously is correct, losing spring football practice will impact Utah’s program greater than any in the state and likely as much as any in the Pac-12.
The coronavirus outbreak has shut down all sporting events, including practices, at virtually every level of competition. As a result, all college football programs won’t get to fulfill the allotted 15 spring practices.
For the Utes, who are replacing an abnormally large number of starters, the timing is not good. In a conference call with reporters, coach Kyle Whittingham admitted as much, saying the team last year could have handled losing the practice time much better.
“I can tell you for certain that the group last year was much more developed and senior laden,” he said. “Really, if you had to choose, you would rather have last year’s group go without spring ball. So, it’s definitely going to impact us.”
BYU will return 14 starters, split evenly on defense and offense. Utah State, which has two new coordinators, brings back seven starters on offense and four on offense.
Utah, the two-time Pac-12 South Division champions, lost its entire defensive backfield and almost every lineman. In addition, the all-time leading rusher and starting quarterback graduated.
The Utes got in three practices earlier this month before taking time off for spring break. The NCAA and all individual conferences decided to halt games and practices, and close campuses during the week the players and coaches were scattered.
“We missed out on having a chance to have a reset meeting, I guess you can say,” Whittingham said. “The onus right now is really on each of the position coaches to stay in daily contact with their group.”
As with most college football programs, coaches use spring practices to evaluate talent and identify potential starters. The training camp that begins in late July or early August is much more intense, with the focus on preparing the starters and primary reserves for the upcoming season.
Without spring practices, the evaluation time will be truncated.
If we’re in fall camp we’ve got to know who are starters are right now. Spring ball is much more about getting the right guys reps. Near the end of the spring you’ve got to say who can do it and who can’t.
–Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley
“If we’re in fall camp we’ve got to know who are starters are right now,” Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said before spring practice was halted. “Spring ball is much more about getting the right guys reps. Near the end of the spring you’ve got to say who can do it and who can’t.”
With no spring ball, the Utes now will need at least a portion of training camp to decide on a starting quarterback. More than likely, the starter — either redshirt sophomore Cam Rising or graduate transfer Jake Bentley — will have never taken a snap for Utah in a game.
To expedite the process, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is trying to coach the quarterbacks through tapes and other methods during the time away from the team. But nothing compares to the evaluation gained through practices and scrimmages.
Utah, though, is not the only team in the conference hurt by losing practices. Three programs — Colorado, Washington and Washington State — have new head coaches and several others have new offensive or defensive coordinators.
Perhaps the biggest hit for BYU involves Zach Wilson, the presumed starting quarterback. After spending last offseason rehabbing from shoulder surgery, Wilson will now miss out on valuable time BYU could have had in its remaining nine practices.
Listing Wilson as a two-year starter going into his junior season is a bit misleading, considering he did not succeed Tanner Mangum as a freshman until halfway through 2018 and then missed a significant chunk of last year due to a thumb injury.
Wilson needed a strong spring performance to solidify his position and hold off talented sophomore Jaren Hall, whose two concussions prevented him from taking full advantage of Wilson’s absence last season. Wilson likely will begin training camp as the starter, joining the bulk of the other starters.
“There’s no a whole lot of install when it comes to those guys,” coach Kalani Sitake said in his conference call. “It’s more fine-tune and polishing and then be able to be in the position to compete. I think that’s going to be really helpful for us. If you look at the history of teams that return a lot of seniors, and a lot of guys with experience and playing time, that should do well for you. I think we have a really good chance.”
Utah State’s spring practice was halted before the team got the chance to don pads. Coach Gary Andersen called the starting quarterback position a four-way battle, but junior Henry Columbi by far has the most experience by virtue of having played in 13 games.