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Patrick Kinahan: Inconsistent Utes still South favorites

Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) runs after a catch in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21.

Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) runs after a catch in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Early on in training camp, Kyle Whittingham made multiple references comparing this year's Utah team to the 2019 group that lost its conference opener and then rolled through the other eight games on the way to reaching the Pac-12 championship game.

"We have no shortage of leadership on this team. It feels a lot like the '19 team in a lot of regards," Whittingham said in August.

In retrospect, at least to this point of the season, maybe that comparison wasn't as accurate as the coach originally believed. At 4-3 overall, by most accounts, the Utes definitely have yet to match preseason expectations as the replacements for all the NFL-bound talent off the 2019 team collectively have not played at the anticipated level.

The good news is, in terms of the standings, this season might mirror two years ago. Still in first place with five Pac-12 games remaining, including two against hapless Arizona and Colorado, Utah remains the favorite to win the South division.

Turns out the culprit is more inexperience rather than ability. Blame it on the dastardly 2020 season, such as it was.

The plan to develop the incoming raw talent last year hit a roadblock when the COVID-ravaged season was reduced to five games, all of which were played before only a smattering of fans in attendance. Instead of all those freshmen returning as more seasoned sophomores, they still are enduring the extended growing pains.

Look no further than the defense, traditionally the foundation of Whittingham's program. The defense, particularly along the line of scrimmage, has been dominated in all three losses.

After Oregon State's offense rolled up 35 points and 468 yards in the most recent loss, Whittingham said the defense played soft. Upon review, it should not come as a surprise.

"I think our defense is going to be fine in the long run," Whittingham said. "I'm talking beyond this year. Again, we keep going back to it, but when you have seven or eight freshmen, nine, 10, that are playing considerable (amount of time), you're going to take some lumps. You can't not have that happen."

Utah's problems stem from starting three freshmen along the line. Returning starting linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell are solid, but the inexperience also extends into the secondary.

The strong run defense that usually is Utah's calling card, has been leaky this season. Each opponent in the three losses (which came on the road against Oregon State, San Diego State and BYU) rushed for more than 200 yards, a rarity against a Whittingham team.

"You never make excuses because if you're out there you've got to perform," Whittingham said. "But we're just not quite where we need to be up front yet. We've had flashes during the course of the year but not quite enough consistency."

It even extends to some of the veteran players. In his weekly appearance on The Zone Sports Network, center Nick Ford explained the differences between last season and this year.

"It's completely different," said Ford, who played other positions along the offensive line in prior seasons at Utah before shifting over to center last season. "Even if you play a new position it's completely different. Having the crowd noise and the atmosphere, it changes everything. ... For instance, I know some of our guys had a rough start. Now they're starting to come around and understand how to perform under different circumstances.

"I can even talk about myself. Last year I got moved to center and really didn't have no center/quarterback exchange issues. But the first couple of games (this year) you kind of start getting amped up, you hold the ball a little too tight and it starts going not where you want it. I had to learn when I heard with the crowd roaring, you can't grip the ball like that. It's definitely a change in the atmosphere because it changes your intensity and how hard you grip things and how hard you hit somebody and your overall passion."

Even if the current Utes are not nearly as good as the '19 team that had seven players drafted and multiple others make NFL rosters as free agents, this group might have a better chance to play in the Rose Bowl. Two years ago, with budding NFL star Justin Herbert at quarterback, Oregon crushed Utah 37-15 in the Pac-12 championship game.

With Herbert now playing for the Los Angeles Chargers, the North division doesn't appear to have one dominant team. But before dreaming of roses, the Utes will have to grow up in a hurry.

Patrick Kinahan:

About the Author: Patrick Kinahan

Patrick Kinahan is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. To read more of his articles, visit Patrick's author page.

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