SALT LAKE CITY — The days are short on light and the temperatures outside unwelcoming. The sidewalks outside the Eccles Football Center are a mix of ice and salt, sometimes a treacherous pathway for players knowing they’re as far from a game day as it gets. It’s there, in the coldest months of the year, where the ethos of Utah football is introduced. The offseason weightlifting and conditioning sessions in January and February inside the facility are designed to build muscle, but most importantly, they’re designed to understand the inevitable.
That is, at some point in the months ahead and with the season in the far-off future, audibles will be forced upon the program. Adaptation is necessary when injuries occur, and in a sport as violent as football, the only certainty is that eventual need to adapt.
“If you can’t handle adversity, you’re not going to be very successful. It’s almost preparation. It’s not if but when it strikes, and how much of it you do endure,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said recently. “Whatever it is, you’ve got to just handle it. I think our guys develop that mentality early on in this program, and we stress it and emphasize it every single week, no matter who is available or not available. You’ve just got to keep playing.”
In his nearly 40 years of coaching, Whittingham has yet to experience a season like this. It’s left him frustrated, heartbroken and often wondering what bad break lies around the corner — which next star player might go down awkwardly or get rolled up on and see his 2023 season come to an abrupt end.
The No. 13 Utes (6-1), who host No. 8 Oregon (6-1) on Saturday, are beyond the halfway point of the season but have already ruled out all-conference athletes like quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe from playing at all this season. Rising suffered a severe knee injury in the Rose Bowl against Penn State in January, and Kuithe hasn’t been able to return since suffering a torn ACL in September 2022.
That’s just the beginning of a list that has lengthened to exasperating levels.
In addition, Utah has lost its most versatile running back, Micah Bernard, LSU transfer running back Chris Curry, No. 2 tight end Thomas Yassmin, emerging edge rusher Logan Fano, Florida State portal addition wide receiver Mycah Pittman and, most recently, the heartbeat of one of the best defenses in the country: middle linebacker Lander Barton, who suffered a season-ending injury Saturday at USC.
And yet, the back-to-back Pac-12 champions are still in the thick of the race in the conference’s swan song. After the Utes beat reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and the Trojans in Los Angeles, college football once again was reminded that Utah, despite its misfortunes and offensive deficiencies, will show up ready no matter who is available to suit up. The flashiness of USC, its quarterback who gets an entire spread dedicated to his greatness in GQ, the $10 million-a-year head coach, five-star talents all over the field, none of it had an answer for a team that knows what it is: one that will take body shots but still be standing in the final round to have a shot.
“Even if I was a betting man, I would never bet against the Utes regardless of the situation just because they — well, we, I want to say we, not they — we always find a way,” said former Utah safety Terrell Burgess, who plays for the Washington Commanders.
The 34-32 win over USC was one win in a season that will go down in Utah lore as aggravating to a fan base that had been salivating over the potential of a three-peat before the list of injuries developed into an unwanted catalog. But it’s also been among the most rewarding to those who know the difficulties of 2023 — Whittingham, in his 19th season as head coach, called it a top-five win for him.
Utah beat Lincoln Riley, Williams and company with a third-string quarterback who has, at times, been as low as fourth on Utah’s depth chart. Bryson Barnes is “the pig farmer” from a town in southwest Utah, but the former walk-on whose 26-yard scramble with 16 seconds left got Utah in field goal range to win it was working at Lowe’s part time the past couple of years before he was put on scholarship earlier this year.
Juxtapose that with Williams, the consensus No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft making a reported $2.8 million a year in name, image and likeness earnings, and you’ve got the encapsulation of Utah always making do. As Whittingham said, you just have to keep playing. And Whittingham’s Utes have, once again, showcased that no program has done more with less in recent years.
“His teams are a reflection of him — tough, hard-nosed, disciplined. He’s so consistent, and there’s a Utah Way of doing things,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “He knows what his vision is, and he doesn’t waver. He does a great job of developing players. He does a great job of playing complementary football.”
While some schools may have to offer starring roles to prized recruits to finish a recruiting pitch, Utah often tells players that when they get to Salt Lake City they’ll be re-evaluated regardless of where they might’ve stood out in high school. Some are told even before they fax in their national letter of intent.
Walk-ons who are now starters are littered throughout the Utah lineup.
Starting running back Ja’Quinden Jackson came to Utah as a quarterback transfer from Texas.
Starting defensive end Connor O’Toole came to Utah as a skinny tight end from New Mexico.
And Utah’s latest how-the-hell-does-this-thing-work move is utilizing starting safety Sione Vaki as a running back/wide receiver/wildcat quarterback. In the past two weeks against Cal and USC, Vaki played both ways and became Utah’s most tantalizing offensive player, netting 226 rushing yards, 149 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
“The impact he’s made on offense is actually probably bigger than the impact he makes on defense, and he’s one of the best safeties in the country, so that tells you how valuable he’s been on offense for us,” Whittingham said.
Sione Vaki has become a two-way star for the Utes. (Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)
A string of nasty luck can bring forth change that, in turn, jump-starts a team. Vaki has been that. But, then again, so has Barnes. Couple that with the steadiness of a defense that has returned to the top 10 of The Athletic’s Stop Rate algorithm, and you’ve got a Whittingham-coached team that has given itself a shot.
“There is this genuine belief that they’re gonna scrap and battle and find a way at the end,” said one Pac-12 coach, who was granted anonymity so he could speak candidly. “For decades, they’re gonna challenge you. They’re gonna make you earn it. Gonna get a targeting call every once in a while. And then there is this true ‘next man up’ mentality they have there. And it’s like, whoever pops up, they’re going, and they play well.”
“Next man up” is a crucial cog in Whittingham’s coaching ideology, along with an always-rude defense, rushing the football and avoiding turnovers at all costs. It’s part of the ethos that is instilled in new and returning players each January and February when they return to town for school and make the familiar march through the glass double-doors of the Eccles Football Center knowing that along with weights and conditioning, they’ll be reminded that nothing will be as warm and inviting as the weight room in winter.
It can get cold in summer, too.
“When I first got to college, everyone was talking about Stanford football and how they were smarter than everybody, and they knew they were smarter than everybody and that’s how they were going to beat you,” Burgess said. “They were going to play above-the-neck football, and that’s how they were going to win. When it comes to Utah football, regardless of who is on the field, they know they’re tougher than their opponent, no matter who is out there.”
Utah’s quest for a three-peat is up against its hardest tests. Two weeks after facing the Ducks this weekend, the Utes face unbeaten No. 5 Washington (7-0) on the road. The Utes will be underdogs in both meetings, but this season has alums like Burgess believing.
“They’re going to find a way,” he said.
— The Athletic ’s Bruce Feldman contributed to this report.