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As South division leader, Utes looking to be contender not pretender in final stretch

Utah wide receiver Money Parks (10) makes a touchdown catch during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Utah wide receiver Money Parks (10) makes a touchdown catch during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Brant Kuithe lined up at the goal line ready to accept the ball as a punter at the conclusion of practice ahead of Utah's Saturday night meeting against the UCLA Bruins.

The snapper fired the football back to the 6-foot-2, 230-pound tight end, and with one fell swoop bombed the pigskin to the 50-yard line of the indoor practice field on campus. There was hang time, distance and good form — at least in a practice setting where no defender applied pressure to the attempt.

By all accounts, the booming punt turned heads to all those who hadn't seen Kuithe's hidden talent before that moment.

The punt was all in fun as multiple players on offense — mostly tight ends — got in on the special teams action. Many of the non-traditional special teamers kicked ill-advised field goal attempts — many short and others wide left or right — and others tried to rival Kuithe's bomb to midfield, but none came close.

Kuithe has about 40 pounds on full-time punter Cameron Peasley, but could the tight end be used as an option in the future? Not likely; but should the team ever need a new punter to give it a shot, Kuithe is at least willing to try whatever new avenues are necessary to help Utah bounce back from a road loss to Oregon State Saturday.

Those avenues likely won't lead to Kuithe switching positions, especially to punter, but there's a hope among the team that the problems affecting the Utes in Corvallis are behind them as the focus shifts to UCLA — a team similarly designed to an Oregon State team that rushed for 260 yards against the Utes Saturday and blocked two punts.

While there hasn't been a decision to replace the team's punter — with Kuithe or anyone else nine weeks into the season — there's an added emphasis as a team to work out the kinks and be more physical, in addition to simply executing to the level Utah expects in all facets of the game.

The offense has to execute better in the red zone, the defense has to lock in and stop the run, and special teams has to position itself in a way to not give up big plays — whether that's on the return, missed field goal attempts or blocked punts. All are important to the makeup of the team, and all have areas to improve upon going into an important South division matchup.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham emphasized this week his desire to see "a little more physicality" from his team.

Ahead of the Oregon State matchup, Whittingham believed his team was starting to resemble the team the coaching staff expected at the start of the season. There were always going to be stumbles along the way, especially was a freshman-heavy defense, but the hope was Utah had enough veteran pieces that it could make up for a team still learning on the fly.

But with three losses already on the season, it's clear Utah is not quite there yet. There's times where the Utes will be outplayed (BYU and Oregon State) and then other times where the team will outplay its opponent (USC and Arizona State). The inconsistency in play is the most consistent aspect of the 2021 version of the Utes — for better or worse.

But much like Utah's 2018 season, in which the Utes finished with a 9-3 regular-season record and had the right pieces in place on the roster, the team was a year early from truly making a mark on the conference. A year later, Utah was a viable contender for the College Football Playoff until the Pac-12 championship game that went sour.

Utah has the pieces now, and an offensive identity to finally contend with teams, but the resemblance to 2018 is real. Utah still controls its destiny in the South division title race and a win over the Bruins Saturday (8 p.m. MT, ESPN) will go a long way in making it a two-team race, but Utah's far from perfect and being a true contender.

Still, the team knows what needs to be done, and it's a simple ask: Execute the plays given.

"I would say we just really got to execute with our plays," running back Tavion Thomas said. "We've got to do whatever is called — we've got to just do it. We've got to get more physical; we've all got to be physical as a team."

"It's just taking it day by day and just focusing on getting better this day," quarterback Cam Rising added. "That's why we talk about getting 22% better in these situations and just focusing on being better and cleaning up those situations."

Utah may lead the South division, but the margins are razor thin, and the last five games of the season will test Utah's ability to bounce back from a loss and focus on the task at hand. Every goal remains at hand, but it will take more than just showing up on game day hoping for a win.

"It's kind of weird because we are still first in the South, but we don't want to settle in that we don't want that to be something that we can always fall back on, like if we lose a game we're like, 'Oh, but we're still No. 1 in the South,'" receiver Devaughn Vele said. "We want to treat every game like it's a Pac-12 championship game; we want to win every single game that we can.

"It's a good thing that we are in the situation, but we don't want to have that mindset where we're leaning on it too much to where it affects how we play."

Saturday may not be the Pac-12 championship game, but it's the biggest hurdle at the moment standing in Utah's way of obtaining that destination this year.

Utah sees itself as a contender, but it first has to prove it's not a pretender in the conference race.

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