SALT LAKE CITY — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham offered a slight chuckle — almost in desperation — as he recounted the situation his team is facing as it prepares for UCLA Saturday.
Nobody could blame him for the emotion given his team is facing a recent surge in positive COVID-19 cases that reached a pinnacle Friday, a day before Utah was set to welcome Arizona to Rice-Eccles Stadium for the season opener. A "rash" of positive tests Friday put Utah in a precarious spot and the only option was to cancel the game.
In short, Utah was on the cusp of the required 53-man roster limit needed to field a team of its scholarship athletes. Most dire, the virus had "decimated" two position groups needed to play and "get it done"
Testing over the weekend was encouraging — Utah's athletic director Mark Harlan said Sunday there were no positive cases in the two-day span — and Utah petitioned UCLA and the Pac-12 to move its game back a day to Saturday to accommodate its needs. But even if a game is to be played Saturday, it will likely feature several players deep on the depth chart and on the scout team.
"We're right on the borderline," Whittingham admitted. "The difference this week is we do have extra time to try to prepare some guys that really have been getting zero reps because of their status on the depth chart. Whereas when it happened last Friday, we were on the threshold as well, but we also didn't have any time — there's no practice left to try to get some of the walk-ons up to speed; it was just an impossible situation.
"Some of these guys haven't taken really any reps since camp started, since we've broken into scout teams, which was after the first week of camp. We've got a bunch of guys that are now going to be counted on to help us win, so that's where we're at."
The game may be played, but various position groups could be very well limited. So a slight chuckle seems appropriate.
Football, though, is really the least of the team's concerns as the health and safety of the players is most important. On Monday, Utah's athletic department confirmed one of its players had been hospitalized, though he hasn't been with the team since August.
"One student-athlete who has not been participating with the football program since August recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized," the department said. "He has since been released from the hospital. He is at home and is doing much better. Throughout this time, he has been receiving care from the medical team."
The situation highlights the serious nature of taking precautions related to the virus — nobody is immune.
"There's no doubt it's out there and it's affecting literally thousands and thousands of people. Depending on how old you are, and that obviously has a big effect on what kind of impact it actually has," Whittingham said.
"I'm not a medical expert, I don't want to try to expound on something that I really don't know much about other than it has impacted us. And like I said, we had one player that had a tough go with it."
Utah will do everything it can to be eligible to play if it can, but the possibility of playing Saturday is still a day-to-day situation.
"Well, we're trying; we hope to. Every day is different. We could get a few more positives this week and that could knock us out of the game this weekend, so it's a day-to-day thing." Whittingham said. "We are doing our best to be able to play the game. But we have — if we lose many more guys this week, we'll be in another situation we're not able to — take it day by day and see what happens."
If — and that remains a big if — Utah gets good news this week and has enough players eligible to compete on the field, they'll kick off their amended season opener Saturday at 8:30 p.m. MT in Pasadena, California. The game will be broadcast on FOX.