Are you having a sense of déjà vu? Do you wonder out loud why it is that you keep expecting the Utah Utes football program to breakthrough only to be let down? Do you wonder how in the heck it is that the team out of Salt Lake City can set expectations so high and yet fail to achieve them over and over and over again? If this sounds like you, do not fret. You are not the only one cruising on this long, strange trip.
The truth is that Utah constantly feels like the team about to break through precisely because they are the team that is about to break through. They have all the pieces that any fair prognosticator could ask for. Excellent coaching and player development? Check. Strong offensive line play? Check. Strong up the middle on defense? Check. Returning experience and improving talent in the skill roles? Check check check check.
Nevertheless, it took eight years for the Utes to win their first divisional title. And the way that Utah closed last season left something more to be desired with not just the fan base but across the nation.
The road for Utah when they entered the PAC 12 was always going to be a long one. The excellence that they have shown in attracting and developing talents in the trenches has always been a leverageable asset. However, the recruiting required to stock the skill positions has been more difficult than most Utah fans might have imagined. This has been particularly true on the offensive side of the ball. The Utes have never finished higher than seventh among PAC 12 teams in total offense and in five of their eight seasons they’ve ended either as the worst or second worst in that category. In fact, here we are in 2019 and the Utah Utes will open the season with their ninth offensive coordinator in the past 11 seasons.
So, is this season finally going to break the mold. Have the Utes finally amassed enough pieces to make their version of spread offense work? Are the pieces in the South falling into place to the favor of Utah? Is it Kyle Whittingham’s time?
All good questions. Let’s open the Gekko Files.
The move of Troy Taylor to take over as the head coach of Sacramento State not only created a future staff coaching opportunity for Jake Browning, it also created an opportunity for yet another coordinator to take over this Utah offense. Andy Ludwig, who has worked with Kyle Whittingham in the past, is that new coordinator. And although he takes over an offense dramatically defined by a run first philosophy, Ludwig is known more for his prowess as a passing game enthusiast. In this way, Ludwig’s presence should create an interesting tension with the uber-conservative Whittingham and an interesting dynamic for Utah offense that was neither particularly efficient or explosive last year.
It goes without saying that the obvious key to this Utah offense is the healthy return of quarterback Tyler Huntley. But it’s not enough that Huntley simply return to the form that we last saw him in. In order for the Utah offense to really takeoff, Huntley will have to take his game to the next level. Blessed with a strong arm and plus mobility, Huntley has yet to fully realize his potential as a quarterback. Sometimes brilliant, Huntley can wow you with his ball zip and ability to tuck it and beat a linebacker one on one. But he can also just as easily let you down with his poor reads or hesitation in the pocket. His 65% completion percentage last season looks okay on paper, as does his 12:6 TD/INT ratio. But after you consider the fact that he threw for multiple touchdowns in just two games and that 1/3 of all his touchdown passes were against Weber State, the light dims a little bit on his stat sheet. For him to take it to the next level, he must become more of a playmaker against the better teams in the PAC.
The other thing that would be very helpful is if he could stay healthy. Backup Jason Shelley was serviceable as a part-time starter last year. But the nose dive in offensive production against both Washington and Northwestern to close last year can be pinned largely on Shelley’s limitations. Beyond Shelley, there is just one other scholarship QB on the roster and he is not nearly ready for the field. So depth is a concern.
Depth may be an issue at the running back position as well. When healthy, running back Zack Moss is one bad hombre. At 225 pounds he is the definition of a “wrecking ball“ in the rushing attack. But Moss missed five games last year thanks to injury. His backups for this season, Devonta’e Henry-Cole and T.J. Green, have yet to distinguish themselves as collegiate rushers and may eventually surrender carries to one of the newcomers - in particular true freshman Jordan Wilmore. Regardless, the Utes will be looking to lean heavily on Moss as the main engine for this offense and his health is a critical factor.
There are some interesting pieces coming together in the passing attack. Key among them is the expected healthy return of Britain Covey. Covey is one of the most versatile and toughest receivers in the nation, not just in the PAC. He can make his mark as a slot receiver, an outside receiver, and a punt returner often all in the same game. And, oh yeah, he may be the best passer on the roster. He is one of the most entertaining players in the entire conference.
Besides Covey, the Utes return just about every receiver who made a contribution to the team last season. That may or may not be a bad thing. If some of the key players, in particular junior Samson Nacua (5 TDs) and sophomore slot Jaylen Dixon take the proverbial next steps, the Utes might have something interesting happening. The talent is there. And with reliable Demari Simpkins still around, there is some depth as well.
I’ll be curious to see what Ludwig does to feature his receiving talent I’m also curious to see if he has plans for any of his tight ends. Surprisingly, Utah has had little success utilizing TEs in the passing game. A pair of sophomores, 6’2” Brant Kuithe (more of an H-back) and 252-lb Cole Fotheringham are both available and caught 50 balls between them last year. Fotheringham is an interesting piece in a bit of the Will Dissly mold and could probably take on more responsibility in the passing attack.
The Utah offensive line is a major question mark. This is because Utah graduates two first team all PAC 12 performers as well as an all-conference honorable mention performer. Fortunately, reloading the Utah offensive line is a task with which Kyle Whittingham is quite familiar. In fact, here is a little nugget: did you know that every single Utah player who has started a game at either right or left tackle since 2014 has been drafted into the NFL? Look up and down the roster and you will find a boatload of players that are between 6’4” and 6‘7“ tall and between 305 and 320 pounds. Whittingham definitely has a type and the availability of options is not a problem here.
The two linchpins in the Utah offensive line will be left tackle Darrin Paulo and interior lineman Orlando Umana. These two will form a strong one-two punch that will have to help carry the line through breaking in three new starters. Where those starters come from remains to be seen. But Marshall transfer Alex Locklear, WSU transfer Noah Osur-Myers, and senior Paul Toala all look like strong candidates to step into key roles. Young Nick Ford also looks like a critical piece to the puzzle of assembling a new line. If they can gel relatively quickly, then a return of Utah’s offensive line to form is feasible. But it is far too early to call this a lead-pipe lock.
We would be remiss if we did not point out that Utah, a team that emphasizes special teams more than just about any other team in the conference, will be breaking in two new kicking specialists. This could be a significant storyline given how strong both K Matt Gay and P Mitch Wishnowsky were last season. So far there has been some concern about the placekicking situation as the only available options are a walk-on and a graduate transfer. This situation could be a factor for a team that likes to keep the scoreboard close and to win with defense.
When you talk about the identity of the Utah Utes program, the answer is very obvious. The secret to Utah’s success since joining the PAC 12 has always centered around the fence first. In fact, in the past five seasons only once has Utah finished outside of the top three in the conference in total defense. Last season was another stellar effort as Utah finished in the overall top 20 in the nation in defensive S&P+ and #5 overall in rush defense (UW finished #15).
The Utes are always strong up the middle. This is especially impressive given how difficult it is to recruit defensive line talent on the West Coast, much less to Salt Lake City. Kyle Whittingham has been very successful building strength up the middle through a multi-pronged strategy of high school recruiting, attracting junior college talent, and landing graduate transfers. 2019 features all of those tactics as Whittingham again looks to roll out another very strong defense.
Everything begins on the defensive line. Utah features one of the better lines in all of college football, especially when focused on describing the rushing defense. They feature a trio of a very large upperclassmen: 6’5” 330-lb Leki Fotu (first team All PAC 12), 6’2” 320-lb John Pensini, and 6’1” 310-lb Pita Tonga (UW fans won’t ever forget his would-be TD return in Salt Lake last season) rotating along the front. None of these guys are particularly strong at creating havoc, but all of them are exceptional at the job of eating blocks and creating space for linebackers to make plays. This unit is a great starting point for building a sound defense, but there are few experienced big-man options beyond this front three (though transfer Viane Moala is a name to watch).
Utah’s defensive ends are also well regarded. Bradlee Anae is a 265-lb physical beast on one side. His specialty is in creating disruption (8 sacks, 15.5 TFLs last year), though he is notoriously undisciplined and can often get washed out by the opponent’s rushing attack (he was largely a non-factor in both UW games as an example). Maxs Tupai is the other presumed starter. Tupai had a breakout as a sophomore with six sacks but may be just as good as a run game defender. The rest of the rotation is made up of no fewer than four defensive ends, all of whom have the size and strength to hold up well under PAC 12 competition. Sophomore Mika Tafua might be the next among this rotation to break out. This is clearly the deepest defensive end rotation in the entire conference.
Utah will have some work to do in rebuilding their linebacker corps following the graduation of stars Cody Barton (MIKE) and Chase Hansen (ROVER). The Utes prefer to play with just two linebackers on the field so they are essentially replacing an entire unit that collectively recorded 184 tackles, 32 TFLs, 9 sacks, 10 PBUs, and 4 INTs.
That’s a lot of production.
The rebuild of the linebacking corps begins with one Utah veteran and a few highly-rated transfers coming out of other PAC 12 programs. Francis Bernard, himself a transfer from BYU, is a physically smaller but very active ROVER who will be given the first crack at one of those starting roles. At the MIKE position, most pundits had expected the talented Penn State graduate transfer Manny Bowen to step in immediately. But Bowen recently announced that he is leaving Utah before having ever playing a down in order to “pursue other business opportunities” (?). The arrivals of two former five-star recruits in UCLA’s Mique Juarez and Stanford‘s Sione Lund at least provide Utah a couple of physically capable players competing to fill out that linebacker corps. Juarez, in particular, feels like one of those guys that will really have a chance to shine in the kind of distraction-limited environment that Whittingham runs.
If you are looking for a chink in the Utah defensive armor, I would definitely worry about depth at MIKE should there be any injury issues. But the secondary is probably the more pressing place to look. Of course, it should be stressed that this is a relative observation. While the Utes somewhat struggled in both defending explosive plays and creating sacks, they still performed at a high enough level to finish 53rd in the nation and third in the PAC in overall pass D.
Junior Jaylon Johnson is a rising star at CB after having a breakout last season with 4 INTs. He is a true lockdown CB who provides Utah a lot of flexibility in running blitz packages. Beyond him, the rest of the CB rotation is harder to read. Veteran Julian Blackmon will be taking on free safety this year, but clearly has the flexibility to shift outside. Seniors Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse are both experienced but not the types of guys who are going to make a ton of plays. Junior Javelin Guidry is a nice little player in the slot. There are several young players and JUCO transfers waiting in the wings, so some reason exists for optimism.
Safety is where there are some issues. I already mentioned the move of Julian Blackmon to free safety, a position that he played several times last season. He ought to be a stable force at that position. To complete the rotation, Utah will be looking to break in a few transfers and a few younger players with less experience. Junior Nephi Sewell transfers in from Nevada and is positioned to take over for Marquise Blair at strong safety. That’s a big set of cleats to fill. After Newell, the Utes are looking at a group of two JUCOs and three true freshmen to fill out their rotation. That’s not ideal, but doesn’t really diminish the rest of what Utah brings to the table defensively.
One Breakout Player
OL Nick Ford
There are many candidates who could potentially fit the bill here. As I wrestled with this question, at different times I had Mique Juarez, Samson Nacua, Cole Fotheringham, and Mika Tafua typed under that header.
I ultimately landed on Nick Ford for a couple of reasons. The first is that he is almost certainly going to get the opportunity to start. As a redshirt freshman, he played in games at center, guard, and tackle, including a total of seven starts. I believe he’s going to end up at RT and I’ve already noted how good Utah is at producing tackles.
The other thing I love about Ford is he’s just one of those meat-and-potatoes, late-bloomer kinds of guys that Whittingham prides himself on developing. Check out this tweet from last year:
That escalated quickly: @Utah_Football redshirt freshman Nick Ford was Britain Covey-sized in high school, standing 5-8 and weighing 160 pounds. Now he's 6-5, 320, and looks like he'll hold down a starting spot on the Utes' offensive line this season. https://t.co/M1lJJwvu0Z pic.twitter.com/iNkl8t9ixV— Salt Lake Tribune Sports (@sltribsports) August 15, 2018
That “Britain Covey-sized guy” is now a 325-pound mountain of a man who I think has every opportunity to blow up this season. With the track record that this staff has in developing trench players, I’d frankly be shocked if Ford didn’t have a breakout this year.
Projecting the Utes
The combination of what Utah brings the table defensively and the state of the rest of the PAC 12 South means that Utah is in a great position to win their second straight South division championship. There really is no question as to whether or not the Utes deserve to be favored in the South this season. The real questions are whether a) there are enough improvements on offense to allow Utah to compete with the better teams in the North, and b) there is enough big play prevention in the defensive secondary to allow Utah to become a true national player this season.
No schedule could be more conducive to supporting a breakout season than Utah’s. The Utes have a very manageable out-of-conference slate with a road trip to BYU being the only challenge. The in-conference schedule features five home games and misses both Oregon and Stanford in the North. The only two challenges that really pop out on the schedule are an early-season road trip to USC and a midseason road trip to Washington. In fact, the only game that the Utes are projected to lose all season is that road trip to Seattle.
The implication here is very clear. This is shaping up to be a huge season for Utah as a national contender. It is not inconceivable that the Utes might be one of the two or three remaining undefeated teams in the nation by the time Halloween rolls around. Should that be the case, we are going to be hearing a lot about Utah as a possible CFP team and title contender. We will also be hearing quite a bit about Utah’s poor strength of schedule and all the question marks that they have on offense as the national pundits debate the merits of Utah’s worthiness on the national scale. Washington fans are all too familiar with that dynamic.
The emergence of Utah could create an interesting foil for Washington—if the Huskies make it that far (and that is a big “if”)—to take on as a potential opponent in the PAC 12 championship. Much is being made about the importance of Oregon’s game against Auburn to the conference as a whole. I actually think having a South program like Utah going into Halloween undefeated might be even more important as it dismisses the notion that the PAC isn’t very competitive beyond the top three in the North. Imagine what an upshot it would be should both Utah and Washington both make it to their November 3 game undefeated.
This could be a very compelling year for Utah.