Deseret News
Kyle Whittingham speaks to the media Monday afternoon.

SALT LAKE CITY — Long ago, in a different era of college football, then-Ute coach Jim Fassel was one day doing a Bear Bryant impersonation, drawling out the words just as the old coach might have.

“The fans will remembuh,” Fassel said, “the games of Novembuh.

That was before December games existed for the Utes. Now it’s a different narrative. Thus the Utes opened spring practice Monday with considerable optimism. Short memory is a boon to coach Kyle Whittingham, who is coming off his worst season since 2013, when the Utes finished 2-7 in conference and failed to make a bowl game. Last year, they were just 3-6 in the Pac-12 and 6-6 overall, before the Heart of Dallas Bowl arrived.

Yet there is a modest buzz about the team. That happens when you wrap up the year with a surprisingly easy 30-14 win over a Big 12 team. The victory over West Virginia inched the Utes above .500 and saved them from a failed season.

If you’re Whittingham, who holds the best bowl win percentage (11-1) in football history, that last game matters.

For him, December is the hap-happiest time of the year.

“It left a good taste in our mouth,” Whittingham said, before qualifying that a 7-6 season isn’t that good. “We did lose those three close ones … but that’s football, and hopefully this year we’ll be able to win our share of those close games.”

On the outside, the Ute coaches are playing it cool — upbeat but restrained. That’s how Whittingham rolls. He has good years and mediocre ones, but his teams always play the final bar fortissimo. Ten weeks after dumping the Mountaineers, it’s time to start back up. Although Whittingham has never been one to indulge in speculation, that doesn’t deter the ticket-buying public. Preseason sales are brisk, despite the Utes having just one starting defensive lineman returning.

Respected magazine Athlon Sports & Life, in January, had Utah picked second in the South Division, saying the Utes “could push USC for the South Division crown.” San Jose Mercury News writer Jon Wilner picked the Utes third in the South but added "a division title wouldn’t be a complete surprise."

There is suspense surrounding the return of multi-talented receiver Britain Covey from an LDS mission, but he isn’t practicing this spring. Then there’s the newly minted quarterback race. Last year’s starter, Tyler Huntley, is likely to retain his position, but freshman Jack Tuttle could play, unless redshirt freshman Jason Shelley steps in. That’s because Huntley plays as though every game were his last — which it could be. Running free is his specialty.

Mayhem, though, is the specialty of many a linebacker.

So the Utes really do need to get four-star freshman Tuttle up to speed quickly, with or without Shelley.

“He doesn’t look like a kid that’s been playing high school football,” Whittingham assured.

A regular Fast Track Jack.

Huntley isn’t made of glass, but at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, the damages add up. He started 10 games, but missed three with injuries in 2017. More revealing is that he was second on the team in rushing touchdowns, proving he regularly puts himself in harm’s way.

Tuttle, who chose Utah over Alabama, LSU, Arizona State, Wisconsin and others, is rated the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country. He led his prep team to a 12-1 record in San Diego County. If this sounds familiar, it should. Former Ute Alex Smith, who spent the last 13 years in the NFL, prepped in San Diego, too.

So the karma is good in that regard.

How much the Utes might tweak their offense to accommodate Tuttle, if at all, is murky. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor isn’t saying anything would be overhauled. However, he did admit “you do what you do, but when you’ve got a guy like Brit (Covey), you’re really dumb if you don’t utilize him in what he’s good at.”

That goes for other players, too, he said.

Despite last year’s six losses, the Utes can take solace in knowing three of them (USC, Stanford and Washington) were by a combined seven points. In a normally productive month, they were 0 for October. Yet by Jan. 1, Utah fans seemed to have moved on fairly well.

The Utes’ schedule should be slightly easier this year, with games against Washington, USC and Oregon at home.

Regardless, Monday was an all-around optimistic late winter day at the U. If Whittingham has learned anything in his 25 years coaching at Utah, it’s that fans really do largely remember how the team closes out. Luckily for him, happy endings are his specialty.