This was a football season that literally had everything. The Utah Utes football team experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Every single one of us over the course of the season has seen the truest definition of what it means to be “family”. Despite a disastrous 1-2 start to the season, their initial starting quarterback leaving the program, and two shocking deaths over the course of the year, this team came together to do something the program has never done before; win a PAC 12 championship and earn a berth in the Rose Bowl. Although the season didn’t end the way we all wanted it to, we can all be proud of what this team accomplished. A football season wouldn’t be complete without taking time to reflect on some of the great players and moments throughout the season as voted on by the contributors for Block U. We’d love for all of you to share your comments in the thread.
Shane Roberts: Offensive Line - Yeah, I’m cheating a little bit, but the offensive line was the key to Cam’s rise (see what I did there?) and to the emergence of the running back room. Based on where the offensive line was the first few weeks of the season compared to the rest of the season, as those guys went the offense went.
Aaron Woods: Tavion Thomas - Cam, Covey, and the tight ends all deserve an honorable mention, but Tavion’s dominance cannot be understated.
Trent Southwick: Cam Rising - Record when Cam starts: 9-2. Record when Cam doesn’t start: 1-2. The team’s attitude and swagger changed significantly the moment #thiccboi7 took the field.
Philip Malugade: Cam Rising - It says a lot when your teammates vote you as a Captain despite losing the job at the start of the season. Cam Rising’s poise had an immediate impact when he almost led a comeback against SDSU and has ever since.
Shane Roberts: Devin Lloyd - The opponent's game plan started and ended with Llloyd. He changed games on his own and made plays all over the field. He’s a 1st round pick in April.
Aaron Woods: Devin Lloyd - Really torn between Lloyd and Tafua here, because I feel like Tafua didn’t get enough credit, but Lloyd is getting a lot of credit for a very good reason.
Trent Southwick: Devin Lloyd had one of the greatest defensive seasons in Utah football history. He played in all 14 games accumulating 111 total tackles, 66 solo tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 pick sixes, 6 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. Nationally, he ranked: 28th in total tackles, 16th in solo tackles, 2nd in tackles for loss, 54th in sacks, 14th in Interceptions, and 2nd in pick sixes.
Philip Malugade: Devin Lloyd- He is without question the leader of this Utah defense and when he wasn’t on the field (after a targeting call against Oregon State) his absence was noticeable. He should be a first-round draft pick in April and with good reason.
Best Breakout Player
Shane Roberts: Cole Bishop - In the preseason Tavion Thomas was talked about quite a bit by the coaches, and there was a thought he may end up being the guy. Cole Bishop, though? It wasn’t until the defensive backfield was so deleted that his name emerged about half way through the season, or later, and we are now seeing the emergence of an all-american.
Aaron Woods: Cole Bishop - Five picks, three sacks, and 54 total tackles as a true freshman? Cole didn’t just look great, he looked great as the youngest, most inexperienced player amongst a defensive unit littered with veteran, NFL caliber talent. His ceiling is unbelievably high considering he wasn’t even on anyone’s radar before the season, and for much of the early season.
Trent Southwick: Tavion Thomas - Tavion Thomas was a fairly last-minute addition to a running back room that included Micah Bernard, along with transfers TJ Pledger and Chris Curry. Tavion had the size to be an impact back but there were unanswered questions about if he could be the featured back. Despite some early struggles with fumbles, he has answered all those questions to the tune of 1,108 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per attempt, and 21 touchdowns. Oh, and he did all of that effectively only playing in 10 of the team's 14 games.
Philip Malugade: Tavion Thomas - No other player went from being homeless not too long ago to becoming a breakout star for the Utes this season. Tavion Thomas’s career as a Ute seemed all but over after early ball security issues. After Rising took over and Utah revamped their offense Tavion Thomas became the featured back in their game against USC and carried the ball 16 times for 113 yards and 1 touchdown and has never looked back since.
Best (Regular) Season Game- it would be too easy to list the Rose Bowl (despite a loss) or the PAC 12 championship for the significance, so we’ll narrow our options
Shane Roberts: Nov 20th vs. Oregon - Utah crowds are pretty notorious for showing up late and leaving early, that was not the case that night. Almost 53k people crammed into that stadium, and when the snowball started rolling it was unlike anything I’ve seen, and it was capped by that insane return touchdown by Covey.
Aaron Woods: Nov. 20th vs Oregon - I’ve never heard Rice-Eccles reach those levels of volume before. The Covey punt return celebration probably registered as a small blip on the Richter Scale that night.
Trent Southwick: Oct. 9th at USC - This game had long been circled as a game that could decide the south division and Ute faithful were anxious to see if this would be the year that the Utes finally win in the Coliseum. Two weeks prior was the tragic death of beloved teammate Aaron Lowe. I think most Ute fans removed all expectations for this game as we had no idea how the team would play while grieving their teammate. Propelled by Cam Rising having his best performance of the season with 306 passing yards, a 78.6 completion percentage, 4 total touchdowns, and a 205.7 passer rating. Utah finished 42-26 with their first ever victory in the Coliseum and a victory to honor Aaron Lowe.
Philip Malugade: Oct. 16th vs. Arizona State - Utah went into this game 3-2 overall and 2-0 in conference and a week removed from beating USC for the first time ever in LA and only 5 days since burying their teammate Aaron Lowe in Texas. All of us were still unsure of Utah’s prospects for the remainder of the season especially when Utah fell behind 21-7 in the first half. However, the Utes stormed back in the second half and shutout the Sun Devils to win 35-21. This was also the game that gave us the “Covey Flex” after a big gain on a pass reception.
Shane Roberts: Flea-flicker touchdown to Vele against USC - Covey’s return(s) this season are the easy call, but that flea-flicker from Cam Rising to Devaughn Vele seemed to be the play that opened the offensive floodgates for the Utes this past season. It gave Utah a big lead right before halftime against USC, broke the Trojans’ spirit, and it all was due to the fact that Rising misread the playcall from the sideline.
Aaron Woods: TJ Pledger’s 96-yard rushing TD vs Stanford - Tavion Thomas already tied his record of four TD’s, a benchmark set just one week earlier, and did so in just one half of football. To see Pledger come in and rip off a massive run, while setting a school record of his own was incredibly special and highlighted not just how deep Utah’s running back talent really is, but also how drastically the offensive line had improved from the start of the season.
Trent Southwick: Micah Bernard’s touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl - Bernard played offense, defense, and special teams for the entire game. It was an incredible showing of passion and endurance highlighted by his touchdown catch in the corner of the endzone. Bernard himself said post-game that he didn’t think he was going to get to the ball but he made a full extension fingertip catch with a perfect toe tap to seal the deal. It was beautiful.
Philip Malugade: Devin Lloyd’s Interception return for a touchdown vs. Stanford - When Devin Lloyd is drafted in April this will be the one on his highlight reel that is played again and again. Devin Lloyd dropped back from his pash rush, leaped up to deflect the pass attempt, and then had the reflexes to come down with the interception and immediately spin towards the end zone. It was an incredible blend of high football IQ and athleticism.
What are you most looking forward to for 2022?
Shane Roberts: The returning core and continual evolution of this team. Basically, I just want to see more of this team, which is basically coming back next year. I can’t wait to see Cam’s evolution with the returning tight ends, running backs, and what other pieces they can add. Also, a full-strength secondary for the Utes, because we didn’t see that really at all in 2021. Lastly, I’d love to be in Pasadena again in a year.
Aaron Woods: Opening the season at Florida. From a purely football-related standpoint, if Utah can get a win over an SEC blue blood, that is going to carry some weight as the season progresses. Oregon was viewed as a potential playoff team for much of the season solely because of their win over Ohio State early in their schedule, and this game could do the same for Utah. The Utes should be in a position to jockey for a top 5 ranking heading into the USC game if they can run the table to start the season, and a win at Florida could help immensely. From a fan standpoint, it’s crazy to think Utah closed out the season in a world-class NFL stadium, followed by a Rose Bowl, then a trip to Gainesville. This is what big-time football is all about, and Utah fans are getting really spoiled. You also have to consider the national attention Utah is getting right now, and how much that is going to help in terms of recruiting, bowl game offers, etc. The Utes smacked Oregon on national TV twice, competed in the Rose Bowl (one of the most viewed sporting events of the year), and get a week one matchup against Florida when most teams are playing FCS and Group of 5 patsies. That game is going to draw in a lot of eyes. I’m also a massive Tom Petty fan, so having the opportunity to stand on the same ground the man himself once did is going to make for one incredible trip.
Trent Southwick: Game vs. USC at Rice-Eccles. This has the makings of a college gameday selection. Utah should start the season ranked pretty well and if they can make it through their first 6 games undefeated, Utah will be a top-10 team. If Lincoln Riley has led USC to be ranked by then (which I think he will), College Gameday will be in SLC.
Philip Malugade: The maturation of Cam Rising. For some reason Cam Rising reminds me a bit of Travis Wilson, maybe it’s the hair but he also has a swagger about him and there is always belief with him at the helm that Utah can win the game. Last year he was injured after only a few snaps and this year he was hurt during most of the off-season and was beaten out as starter. I can’t wait to see him have an entire off-season to prepare and bond with this offense. This was a tough one because I’m also excited about our defense for similar reasons but I truly believe we haven’t seen the best of Cam Rising and I can’t wait to see him in Gainesville.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (Rookie = 6 or fewer games played in their career)
Shane Roberts: Cam Rising - I think this is a no-brainer, and I like to get cute with some answers. We all heard Cam was going to be good, but I think he showed us his ceiling is incredibly high. In his first season, not even full season, he was the Pac-12 first-team QB. I can’t wait to see him after another off-season knowing he’s the dude.
Aaron Woods: Cam Rising - Rising didn’t even finish one drive in 2020 before getting injured and sitting the rest of the season out, and wasn’t even picked to start the season, so to see him lead the team the way he did was something truly special. It’s easy to see why he was voted team captain when you look at the overall body of work.
Trent Southwick: Devaughn Vele - Vele caught only 2 passes in 2020 in limited action so this was his first full season playing. Vele burst on the scene with 23 receptions for 389 yards, and 1 touchdown. His 389 yards on the season is good for 4th best on the team behind only Kuithe, Covey, and Kincaid. His 16.9 yards per catch is first on the team and sixth in the Pac-12 (min. 15 receptions). What his numbers don’t show is his ability to make the contested catch. It felt like almost every game there was a catch by Vele that made me say, “WOW”.
Philip Malugade: Devaughn Vele - I would absolutely agree with Aaron on Cam Rising but I’ll agree instead with Trent and go with a “true” freshman as Vele made a name for himself at USC with 4 catches for 84 yards and a huge TD grab on a flea-flicker at the close of the first half. Although he didn’t have eye-popping stats I think he’ll become a key target alongside Kuithe and Kincaid next season.
Defensive Rookie of the Year (Rookie = 6 or fewer games played in their career)
Shane Roberts: Cole Bishop - All the plays he made against Oregon, along with Devin Lloyd, almost single-handedly broke the Ducks. Also, the fact that he seamlessly stepped into that defensive backfield after all the injuries was so impressive, and he came out of nowhere – he wasn’t on my radar. I want to give an honorable mention to Clark Phillips, since the COVID year I don’t think really counts. Clark and Cole in the defensive backfield is so exciting. Although, Bishop may find his home at linebacker, similar to Chase Hansen.
Aaron Woods: Cole Bishop - I don’t like myself for giving Bishop breakout player and defensive rookie, but I can’t stop myself from being wildly impressed with everything he accomplished this season. I’m a big fan of Karene Reid and think he’s going to be a beast next season, so I was tempted to give him the nod here, but Bishop simply earned the top spot.
Trent Southwick: Junior Tafuna - The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Tafuna played in 11 games racking up 33 total tackles, 22 solo tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 pass deflection, and 1 fumble recovery. As a freshman, he was the most productive defensive tackle on the team. With his size and production, opponents over the next few years will be sure they know where Tafuna is on every play.
Philip Malugade: Clark Phillips III - Similarly to Devaughn Vele, Phillips didn’t necessarily have eye-popping stats but he showed us glimpses throughout the season of why he will be a star. In the Washington State game, Phillips had a 54-yard pick six to help seal the game. On the biggest stage against Ohio State Phillips had an unbelievable play as he showed incredible hustle to track down Jaxon Smith-Njigba and punch the ball out of his hands as he seemed destined to set up Ohio State for another easy score. In the second half, Phillips picked off CJ Stroud in the end zone for yet another big momentum play at the time. Phillips will be a key piece of the Utah defense next year.