Who will be Utah's next starting quarterback? That's the big question facing the Utes as they open camp Thursday on the practice fields.

Sorting out the quarterback situation is priority one for the defending Mountain West Conference champions.

"No doubt," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "We've got three guys who are virtually in a dead heat, and it's going to be a competitive situation.

"But," he added. "I believe that competition brings out the best in people and we're eager to see if somebody separates themselves from the pack."

Juniors Corbin Louks and Terrance Cain, along with true freshman Jordan Wynn, are competing to replace Sugar Bowl MVP Brian Johnson as the starter.

"All three will get equal amount of reps with the ones," Whittingham said. "In order for it to be an equitable situation for them, every guy needs that opportunity."

Louks, who backed up Johnson last season and is the only one with major college experience, was considered the frontrunner in spring ball. Things, however, have changed.

"I think that advantage has been negated with the excellent progress that was made by both Terrance and Jordan throughout spring football," Whittingham explained.

Because of limited reps in practice, the competition is expected to evolve into a two-man race after the camp's first scrimmage on Aug. 13.

"When we say get it down to two as soon as possible, that's a relative statement," Whittingham said. "Hopefully after that scrimmage we'll have enough of an evaluation time to make that decision."

Whittingham downplayed the possibility of a platoon system this fall, noting that he's never seen it work anywhere else. As for having a "change-up" quarterback, Whittingham said it'll depend on who gets the starting job and if the others offer an adequate alternative.

In addition, redshirt scenarios won't be as factor as the Utes seek to put the best quarterback on the field. Louks and Wynn do have redshirt years to use, however, while Cain does not.

Utah has two other primary areas of concern going into fall camp — naming a starting center and solidifying the punting and place-kicking duties held by All-American Louie Sakoda.

The latter, Whittingham said, is right behind the quarterback situation in terms of importance.

Senior Ben Vroman is back to handle kickoff duties and is in the running for the placekicking job. Freshmen Nick Marsh is also in the mix. Redshirt freshman Sean Sellwood is the leading candidate at punter.

Return specialists are also going to be determined in camp.

"We had a great start with all that in spring," Whittingham said. "But we've got to get those things finalized."

Redshirt freshman Patrick Greene will likely be the long snapper.

In the trenches, senior Tyler Williams and redshirt freshman Tevita Stevens are battling for the starting center job. That could change, though, because the Utes have the luxury of moving junior Zane Taylor back to the middle, if necessary. He's been moved to guard as part of the team's overall philosophy.

"The end result is going to be that the five best guys will play," Whittingham said of an offensive line that includes All-America candidate Zane Beadles. "So we'll see how that shakes out."

On defense, where the Utes have eight returning starters, depth will be hotly contested — primarily at cornerback.

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"We play so much man coverage and we see so many three and four receiver sets from offenses that we've got to have third and fourth corners in place," Whittingham said. "Right now there's good battles going on for those spots."

R.J. Stanford and Brandon Burton are ticketed to replace NFL draftees Sean Smith and Brice McCain as the starting cornerbacks.

The competition will intensify after the Utes complete the NCAA's acclimatization period. After two days of helmets and shorts, they'll evolve into wearing full pads by day five.

All practices and scrimmages will be closed to the public.

Utah opens the season on Thursday, Sept. 3 at home against Utah State and former Ute defensive coordinator Gary Andersen.

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com