SALT LAKE CITY – The shackles were off, the gag order rescinded for the Utes on Tuesday at Eccles Field House.
They were officially opening practice for the Pac-12 football season, and telling the world. The cautious days when they couldn't say a word about (shhhhhh!) USC, (hush!) Washington or (tsk, tsk, tsk!) Oregon State were over. It was no longer an open secret. As the phrase goes, it is what it is.
The Utes are preparing for a different deal on a different level.
"Yeah, we had a gag order for awhile," offensive tackle Tony Bergstrom said. "If somebody said anything about it (last year), you'd be in coach Whit's' office 10 minutes later with him saying, 'What are you doing?'"
Now they can take it to TMZ and Oprah, for all Whittingham cares.
"It's nice. It's exciting," Bergstrom continued. "Last year we were focusing on last year, now it's kind of nice to change your focus."
Changing focus is one thing, changing competition another. Instead of Wyoming, UNLV and New Mexico, the Utes will be playing Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. It's true not everyone in the Pac-12 is great. When was the last time anyone stayed up late worrying about Washington State?
Still, it's a worrisome new place for the Utes. Something indeed was different for them on Tuesday. For starters, the media crowd around offensive coordinator Norm Chow was as large as the one for head coach Kyle Whittingham. When has that ever happened? In the past, the coordinators were garnish. Chow might as well have his own tour bus.
The Utes also added well-traveled offensive line coach Tim Davis in the off-season.
"Seriously," said Bergstrom, "if you could just bring back, like, Paul 'Bear' Bryant, we'd have every big (coaching) name out there."
While that might be debatable, the challenges the Utes face in the Pac-12 aren't. Hence, there are changes afoot. In hiring Chow, the Utes committed to a multiple offensive attack. That can't be bad news for projected starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, who was never ideally suited for an offense as run-dependent as the spread. But the Utes say from now on they'll be traveling north-south instead of east-then-south or west-then-north. The spread works fine if you have an exceptional run/pass quarterback. But Wynn isn't that, and last year's backup, Terrance Cain, wasn't a great passer.
The fact Wynn will be sidelined this spring, recovering from shoulder surgery, didn't stop someone from asking Chow whether he had "any Heisman talent" in his corps (Chow has quarterbacked three Heisman winners). He laughingly replied: "I told Jordan, 'We'll go to the Heisman one more time and I'll retire.' "
As next season nears, the reality of the Utes' situation is surely settling in. Not only did they graduate key players such as Caleb Schlauderaff, Zane Taylor, Matt Asiata and Christian Cox, they also lost Brandon Burton and Sealver Siliga, who declared early for the NFL Draft. They still have talent but their ranks are thin, and depth will be a factor as never before.
"I think at some positions we're stronger than others," Bergstrom said, "but I think you see that every year. There are always questions and those questions always get answered."
On the first day, they rapidly ran through their drills, did their sprints, congregated their huddles — same as always. But of course it wasn't. Any way you looked at it, anticipation was in the air, and more of it than usual.
While Chow claimed "it's nothing different," everyone knew it was.
"I got a new job without an interview," said Whittingham. "(Athletics director) Chris Hill mentioned that. It's no change as far as mechanics and how we go about things and how we practice, but there is a certain air about it."
Air that at long last was being cleared.
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