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Utah football: At fall camp’s end, Utes have solidified identity, key roles

August 21, 2016 GMT

On Sunday morning, the first Associated Press top 25 poll of the season left Utah football out of the top 25 and dropped them to third in the “Others receiving votes” category.

While the rest of the country is still judging where the Utes fit into the national picture, the Utes have used fall camp to solidify their identity.

Utah wrapped up on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, much further along from where it started. The Utes have a starting quarterback, a center, a receiving rotation, and linebackers they believe will make a difference. At other areas of strength, the depth chart has been more clearly fleshed out.

“We’ve got some live work we’ve got to evaluate,” coach Kyle Whittingham said on Saturday, “but we’re pretty well settled in.”

The atmosphere of the final few practices of camp reflected that comfort. While coaches tote the company line of continuing to compete for roles, many of them appear decided.

Here’s some of the major lessons from Utah’s fall camp:

1. Troy Williams is “the guy” at quarterback.

Much was expected for the four-star, junior college transfer who was once a heralded prep prospect at Washington, and Williams managed to deliver. Coaches were impressed by Williams’ ability to string together consistent practices and make plays in the passing game. He was also named one of Utah’s five captains this fall, making an impression on his new teammates in only eight months.

Williams said the experience of leaving the Huskies emphasized the importance of being willing to work for his role. He was often among the last to leave practice, pounding out push-ups on the field. Whittingham praised how he camped out in the film room for long hours. While Williams still has to prove himself when the games matter, he did what he could do in fall camp to be named the starter.

“Troy Williams is a really great leader, he’s really embraced that role,” Whittingham said. “People really respect him.”

2. The receiving corps is showing more competitiveness.

For the last few years, Utah practices have been defensively dominated, even as recently as this spring. But there was more fire from the passing attack this fall, as Tim Patrick and Raelon Singleton got healthy, less experienced returners stepped up, and receivers coach Guy Holliday began to truly put his stamp on the unit. The Utes receivers don’t bring back much production from last year, but they have size, some speed and have been trained to be more competitive in jump-ball situations. There’s a growing expectation that they’ll help fuel a Utah passing attack that was 11th in the conference last year.

“We needed to compete more,” Whittingham said. “Show more intensity. We saw that all fall camp. That’s the bottom line, making plays. We had very few drops this camp. We’re not perfect, but we’re better than we were last year.”

3. Linebacker has become clearer, but the secondary and defensive line will be the strengths of the defense.

The Utes find themselves in the perhaps unexpected position of having the same two starting linebackers that they had in the spring. While Kavika Luafatasaga should still push for a starting spot throughout the season, Sunia Tauteoli and Cody Barton have gained enough mastery of the scheme that they are managing to hang on (and even thrive) despite competition.

That being said, the real power of the defense will come from the units that are surrounding the linebackers. With eight other regular starters returning in the front and the secondary, Utah will lean on its experience in those areas. Lowell Lotulelei, Hunter Dimick and Kylie Fitts will need to put more pressure up front, while Marcus Williams and Dominique Hatfield and company will look for a reprisal of their ballhawking performance last year. The linebackers shouldn’t be as much of a strength as last year, but the defense itself still could be better.

4. There’s high hopes for the next generation.

The Utes mined one of their best-ranked signing classes under Kyle Whittingham in February, and that showed in camp. Fans started becoming familiar with names like Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, Demari Simpkins, Chad Hekking, Leki Fotu, Bradlee Anae, Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon. It’s perhaps most relieving that senior-laden positions — cornerback, defensive end, and tight end — have some of the best-performing freshmen. While fall camp is mostly about preparing for the season ahead, it’s also for preparing for the seasons beyond, and Utah feels comfortable about its back-up talent at several key positions.

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon