It’s a lot different just because the coaches expect more out of the people who actually are getting more playing time. —Julian Blackmon
SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham has a long list of reasons he wants to end every football season at a bowl game.
Somewhere near the top of that list is that the extra practices allow bowl-eligible teams to develop the team’s young reserves.
“It is invaluable for the young players and a great reward for the veterans,” Whittingham said the week before Utah earned the opportunity to take on West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26. “We prepare hard and we work hard. But at the same time, you want to make it a good experience for them.”
Last year, as they prepared for Indiana, those wintry practices benefitted guys like Julian Blackmon.
The sophomore played just a few minutes in last year’s bowl game, so this year, as the only member of the secondary to play every game, it feels much different to the Layton native.
“It’s a lot different just because the coaches expect more out of the people who actually are getting more playing time,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s pressure, but if anything, it’s accountability. And one thing that I really like to do is push myself to just learn everything about the other team, so that the coaches don’t really have to worry about me not knowing what I’m doing.”
This time last year, junior kicker Matt Gay was playing soccer. Now he’s heading into his first bowl game as the first Lou Groza Award winner in the school’s history. He leads the nation in most kicking categories, including field goals made (27), field goals per game (2.25) and 50-yard field goals (five).
“It’s just another game,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I just have to do what I’ve been doing all year — just try and stay focused and kick the football through the uprights.”
He said the anxiety of being considered for — and then winning — a national award doesn’t impact what happens on the field for him.
“That’s off-the-field stuff,” he said. “You get the award, try to enjoy it with your family and friends, but then you get back on the field and try to focus on the team. You get back in and try to get these seniors off with a win.”
Utah’s starting lineup and major contributors will include a lot of faces that saw little or no time in last year’s bowl game. Among those names are freshman Javelin Guidry, sophomore running back Zack Moss, sophomore Davonta’e Henry-Cole, redshirt freshman wide receiver Sampson Nacua, sophomore tight end Jake Jackson and offensive linemen Jackson Barton, Lo Falemaka, Darrin Paulo and Jordan Agasiva. On the defensive line, sophomore Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, Pita Tonga, John Penisini and Caleb Repp will certainly see time.
Most of the secondary is experiencing a bowl game for the first time, including junior Corrion Ballard and sophomore Terrell Burgess, while senior linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga and sophomore Donavan Thompson will be starters in the postseason for the first time.
For those first-time contributors, this is their chance to write a chapter in Utah’s storied postseason history. That includes helping Whittingham hold onto the nation’s best bowl win percentage, as the coach is 10-1 in bowl games. Utah is 4-0 in bowl games since joining the Pac-12.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley saw limited action last year, completing one pass and scoring a 1-yard rushing touchdown. He’s battled injuries this year as a starter, but he said he feels great and is looking forward to leading the Utes in his first postseason start.
“Always toward the end of the year, you get that feeling like you’re not going to see a couple of people around the facility anymore,” he said. “Kind of get sad, but hey, it’s life and people move on. We just got to keep working to be great.”
In addition to invaluable extra coaching, it is an opportunity for underclassmen to enjoy a little bit more time with those leaving the program — either for graduation or other football opportunities.
“It’s really weird,” Blackmon said. “Especially because of how close I am with a lot of the seniors. All I’m trying to do is just have a good time with each of them and make memories before the end of the year. And you know, the best way to do that is to send them out with a win.”