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the Gekko Files: Previewing Utah Utes Football in 2018

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Juco transfers, physical freaks from Australia, and the elusive quest for a championship.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Quick, name the NCAA’s all-time post-season most winning coach.

Okay, since this is a Utah Utes preview you probably blurted out “Kyle Whittingham” without even really giving it a thought. That, of course, is correct. Whittingham is the NCAA leader in bowl game win percentage at 92%. Not Les Miles. Not Nick Saban. Not Chris Petersen. Not Steve Sarkisian. Kyle Whittingham.

Remarkable, right?

And it isn’t like the man doesn’t have a “large N” to work from. Utah has 11 bowl appearances under Whittingham including a Sugar Bowl blowout of Alabama in the 2008 season (which created a legitimate argument for Utah as the national champs).

Whittingham has been an assistant or the head guy at Utah for 25 seasons. In that time he successfully transitioned the program from one great head coach (Urban Meyer), he’s steered Utah into a Power 5 conference, he’s achieved more weeks ranked in the CFP poll than any other PAC 12 team, and he managed to be the only PAC 12 head coach to win his bowl game a season ago. But there is one thing he has yet to do: Utah remains the only team in the South Division that has never won the division title.

With 18 starters returning, a dynamic young quarterback, and a wide-open field, 2018 could be just the opportunity that Kyle Whittingham has been hoping for. Could this be the year?

It’s time to open the Gekko File on our friends from Salt Lake. Let’s dive in.

Utah Offense

Utah Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
OL depth outside speed QB Tyler Huntley WR Solomon Enis (TFr)
QB potential tight end depth OL Lo Falameka QB Jack Tuttle (TFr)
power running big play potential RB Zack Moss WR Britain Covey (mission)

Let’s just start with this: with nine starters returning, a veteran offensive line, and a dabbling of potential playmakers in the passing game, it is not a stretch to say that the 2018 Utah offense projects as its best since the Utes entered the PAC.

Of course, that isn’t saying a lot.

Utah has never finished in the top half of the conference in total offense. In fact, they’ve averaged a 10th place finish and have ended at either 11th or 12th in five of their seven years since joining the PAC. That, obviously, is the worst in the conference over that span.

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington
Tyler Huntley is looking to hit more big plays - and take fewer sacks - going into his junior campaign.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that Utah has been on the upswing. Its two best years in producing total offense have been the last two years. 2018 ought to see a continuation of that trend.

Eyes were opened a year ago when young QB Tyler Huntley unseated incumbent Troy Williams to take over the Troy Taylor- (former Jake Browning coach) led offense. Huntley is an average-sized QB who possesses plus mobility. His real strength, however, is his big arm—a must for an OC who loves to push the ball downfield in the passing game.

The results were mixed for Huntley. He never really generated the long passing plays Taylor was looking for, averaging 7.7 yards per pass. He threw ten interceptions despite missing a few games to injury. His maturation is the key to this Utah offense. He has the tools he needs: wheels, accuracy, and a big arm. He now needs to master his offense.

He will also need some support from the offensive line.

The Utah line was surprisingly poor in pass protection last season, this despite being a relatively veteran bunch. On review, however, I’m willing to put some of the pass pro problems on Huntley and his tendency to improvise behind the line of scrimmage. The truth is that Utah has some very good tools to work with on the O-line. C Lo Falemeka is one of the best (if not the best) centers in the conference, while their two projected starting tackles—6’7” senior LT Jackson Barton and 6’5” junior RT Darrin Paulo—are the best tackle duo this side of UW’s Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary. In total, Utah returns four of five starters, all of whom are juniors and seniors.

The playmaker situation is in flux, particularly among the receivers, but in truth this is a situation that can only improve. Utah ranked dead last in the PAC 12 in third down conversion last season (35% - five points lower than 11th place Oregon State!) and generated just 50 plays of 20 yards or more (USC nearly doubled that with 94). The losses of Darren Carrington and Raelon Singleton (transfer to Houston) off last year’s roster, hurt to be sure. But Utah gets back dynamo slot receiver Britain Covey (remember him?) who had a brilliant freshman season in 2015 before going on a two-year mission trip. Utah will count on him to add some big plays into their repertoire.

Utah has been playing a lot of guys the past two years. They all seem to be arriving this year. While there are a number of players who could break out among the receiver ranks, I’ll be keeping my eye on a couple. Bronson Boyd is a Texas Tech transfer who sat out a year ago. He had a huge spring and is one of those young guys that might be starting by season’s end. I’m also keen on seeing what happens with the trio of Demari Simpkins, Samson Nacua (6’3”), and Siaosi Mariner (6’2”). All of these players were productive in rotational roles last year but will be leaned on more heavily now in an offensive scheme that highly emphasizes the involvement of many receivers. If you are looking for a potential high-impact freshman, keep a lookout for 6’4” Solomon Enis—the highest-ranked receiver that Utah has ever signed.

One thing that might be difficult for Utah to deal with is their tight end situation. Utah lost both starters a year ago and will be leaning on a sophomore and two true freshman to help cover the position in 2018. Troy Taylor isn’t known for a lot of TE incorporation into the passing game, but they are huge contributors in the blocking scheme. This will be a situation to watch (speaking of which, check out the story on incoming tight end recruit Thomas Yassmin, an Australian rugby player who has never played football).

The running back situation looks good. Utah led the conference in time of possession thanks in large part to the big load carried by 220-lb bruiser Zack Moss. The junior rushed for over 1100 yards and 10 TDs a year ago while showing good ball security and toughness after first contact. He will be a featured back again this year and will get support from fellow bruiser Armand Shyne—who was the projected starter before an injury a year ago - and home run hitter Devonta’e Henry-Cole.

I should also note the kicking situation here. Utah has been legendary in producing both punters and kickers for the last several years. This year they boast the absolute best situation in college football with both Matt Gay (PK - 30 of 34 FGs last year) and Mitch Wishnowsky (P and Kickoff Specialist). The kicking game is a real factor for the Utes.

Utah Defense

Utah Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
big play prevention linebacker depth DL Bradlee Anae DL Jeremiah Johnson (Txfr)
interior DL depth team speed DB Jaylon Johnson DB Josh Nurse (Txfr)
LB Chase Hansen

It is not all that often that we look at the Utah Defense and ponder whether or not it has enough horsepower to give their offense a chance to win games. But that is exactly where we sit going into 2018.

This isn’t all about replacing outgoing graduates. Utah already showed us some signals of decline last season. It’s not that finishing third in overall and scoring D in the PAC is bad. It is how the defense achieved it which is concerning. Specifically, a severely inconsistent pass rush (only six sacks in their six losses versus 19 in their seven wins) and penchant for fading in the fourth quarter (Utah gave up 104 fourth quarter points all year compared to 193 in quarters 1 through 3 combined) appeared as severe problems that were, frankly, covered up by 26 forced turnovers and a great kicking game.

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah
Chase Hansen is going to have to become a playmaker at linebacker if Utah’s Defense is to excel this year.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The road ahead doesn’t get any easier for the Utes, especially along the defensive line where DE Bradlee Anae is the only returning starter. Fortunately, he is a good one.

Anae is a smaller end prospect who can often get overpowered by larger tackles (or even good tight ends). But he is really quick off of the snap and has that Tasmanian Devil quality of being able to spin and fight at the same time. He led Utah in sacks a year ago (with 7) and projects as their best pass rusher this year. His challenge is to pace himself so as to not run out of gas late in games.

Whether or not there are any other ends to help keep the pressure off of Anae remains to be seen. Maxs Tupai—a virtual Anae clone as a sophomore—will likely take over for the graduated Kylie Fitts. A few other names to watch are juco transfer Jeremiah Jordan, Nick Heninger, and Davir Hamilton, all of whom play around 250 lbs or less. Unless some of the young players (e.g. freshman Paul Maile or freshman David Fotu) show that they ready to give some snaps, I think Utah is going to have real issues setting the edge and controlling opposing rushing attacks, even if they are able to mount a bit of a pass rush.

The rest of the line is inexperienced but, hey, at least they are big. The key name to know is junior DT Leki Fotu. The 325-lb Fotu will be taking over for the departed Lowell Lotuleilei and Filipi Mokofisi. He’ll get help from a rotation of three other 300+pounders on the inside, one of those being true freshman Jackson Cravens. Unlike the situation with the ends, you have to like the depth that Utah has cultivated. The interior of the line ought to be a strength even if we don’t yet know who the stars are going to be.

I also think that the secondary ought to be a strength. Keep in mind that a year ago we were bemoaning all the new players joining safety Chase Hansen. Those players all turned out to be great. Now we find that Utah has some experience, even with Hansen seemingly destined to drop down to the linebacker position.

In fact, Utah was really good in pass defense last year. Junior corner Julian Blackmon was the star of that show. A true “cover first” kind of corner, Blackmon generated 6 PBUs and 4 INTs in a great sophomore campaign. CB Jaylon Johnson, now a sophomore, was every bit his equal with 6 PBUs and one INT as a true freshman.

That corner pair is back and will be supported by a very deep crop of safeties, even after accounting for Chase Hansen’s position switch. The starters from a year ago—SS Marquis Blair and FS Corrion Ballard (both of whom were JC transfers last season)—both return as seniors this year. Blair and Ballard both qualify as “big” safeties who are more effective in run support but who are able to contribute in pass coverage. They are each backed up by experienced juniors in Philip Afia and Terrell Burgess.

If there were any concerns about the secondary, it would be around corner and nickelback depth. Boobie Hobbs has moved on and leaves behind an open competition for those rotational roles. Fortunately, there is some talent to work with (I’m looking at sophomore nickel Javelin Guidry) as well as a couple of compelling young corners coming in via the 2018 recruiting class.

If you really need something to worry about, focus on a linebacking corps that loses both its starters from a year ago and will rely on Hansen to solidify things in 2018. Those of you that are PAC 12 fans probably can’t believe that Hansen still has eligibility. He is the epitome of players who seem like they’ve been around forever. He does still have eligibility and he intends to use it by putting his tackling-machine skills to work as a Rover in Utah’s scheme. Hansen has already started a couple of games in his career in the same role and has always produced as an in-the-box safety. This should work out.

The rest of the OLB situation isn’t quite as settled. Chris Hart will make the move from the defensive line to the outside pass rush specialist role. He is uber-athletic but, at 220 lbs, was just too small to take the pounding as a hand-on-the-ground rusher.

Upperclassmen inside guys Cory Barton and Donovan Thompson are good players, but don’t bring a lot of differentiation to the position. Utah is hoping to see some competition this fall from some of the younger guys on the roster. The problem is that most of those younger guys are true freshmen. There just isn’t much depth.

On most years, we look for Utah’s D to be the focal point of the team. With the return of former Oregon State Coach Gary Andersen to the defensive staff, one would think that we should all feel the same this year. But I just don’t see it. This is an average PAC 12 defense as I see it on paper today.

One Breakout Player

DE Jeremiah Johnson

I really wanted to go receiver here, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger on any one player given what we know about how Troy Taylor coaches offense. So I’ve turned to my attention to the defensive side.

If Utah is to reclaim its former glory in the pass rush department, juco transfer Jeremiah (Rex) Johnson is very likely to be part of it. The 6’6”, 255 lb, 21 year old is a full-grown man with plus athleticism who really saw his recruitment from Mt. San Jacinto take off last season. He was pursued heavily by Washington State, Louisville, and Colorado before committing to Utah.

His one and only job will be to rush the passer, though his size and obvious strength will allow him the opportunity to develop as an every-down end. I think the combination of opportunity and his raw skills could well translate into a breakout season. I’m looking for a 50-tackle, 7-sack kind of year from the Utah junior.

Projecting the Utes

I fully believe that Utah is capable of winning the PAC 12 South this year. Of course, that is akin to saying that I believe I’m capable of getting wet if I walk outside in the rain. Everybody has a shot in the South.

Utah feels to me like one of those teams that is still one year away. I like the trajectory of their offense, the potential of their QB, the maturity of their line, and the capability of their secondary to prevent big plays. Those areas combined should result in an improvement in Utah’s 6.9 pts per game scoring differential from a year ago.

But the gaps here seem like big ones. The linebacker situation, the lack of established receiving playmakers and zero depth among experienced tight ends all seem like big issues. I’m also not completely sure that this is the year where we see Tyler Huntley reach his potential or that we finally get a season where major stars are not held back by injury.

The schedule is mostly a plus. While I’m sure they’d prefer to miss Oregon and Stanford rather than Oregon State and Cal, Utah still has a manageable situation. Their OOC is Weber State, @ Northern Illinois, and BYU on the last weekend of the season. Their in-conference schedule features their two toughest opponents—Washington and USC—both making trips to Salt Lake. You have to like that if you are a Utes fan. In fact, their stretch of home games that kick off with UW in week 3 and ends with USC in week 7 includes all of the games in which they are projected as underdogs in 2018. We’ll know by October 21st whether or not Utah is a contender.

There is no doubt in my mind that Utah is a top 25 team right now. I would happily bet on the over on the Vegas line for seven wins. But the path to the South Division and a PAC 12 championship doesn’t seem obvious to me.

At least not this year.