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2023 Team Talent Preview: Utah

Can Kyle Whittingham’s bunch overcome the doubters once again for a 3rd straight Pac-12 title?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Pac-12 Championship Game - Washington v Utah Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the 8th part in our series looking at the rosters of every Pac-12 team as we head ever closer to opening day. The order is organized by my team talent rankings. For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal, 10. Arizona Wildcats, 9. California Golden Bears, 8. Oregon State Beavers, 7. Colorado Buffaloes, 6. Arizona State Sun Devils.

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 1,035.8 (6th)

Quarterback- 118.0 (5th)

Starter- Cameron Rising (93.8)

Reserves- Nate Johnson (48.4), Bryson Barnes (47.6), Mack Howard (41.7), Brandon Rose (30.6)

In a lot of years Cam Rising would be viewed as potentially the best quarterback in the conference. But this is 2023 so he is completely overshadowed by fellow former transfers Caleb Williams (USC), Michael Penix Jr. (UW), and Bo Nix (UO). For his career now Rising has thrown for over 5,500 yards with 46 TDs on 7.8 YPA plus run for over another 1,000 yards on the ground. The bigger problem for Rising is that he tore his ACL in Utah’s bowl game last season and it’s unclear whether he’s back by opening day let alone back and fully healthy. Either way, he won’t have had hardly any full workouts during the offseason.

When Rising missed time last year the Utes went with former walk-on Bryson Barnes who actually played more like a gunslinger rather than the game manager you might expect from a FWO back-up. We’ll see if he holds onto the backup job. 4-star redshirt freshman Nate Johnson will certainly be threatening to take that job if he used the offseason appropriately to get better.

Running Back- 122.9 (5th)

Starter- Jaylon Glover (85.3)

Reserves- Micah Bernard (75.3), Ja’Quinden Jackson (74.7), Chris Curry (52.7), John Randle Jr. (48.6), Dijon Stanley (47.1), Michael Mitchell (46.6)

If I went 3-deep at this position in the combined ratings then Utah would move up even higher as they have 3 of the top-14 backs overall in my conference rankings. The stables are once again loaded in Salt Lake City. The presumptive starter will be former Texas QB Ja’Quinden Jackson who put up a ridiculous 6.7 yards per carry and finished the season with 303 yards and 6 TDs over Utah’s final 3 games. He had almost an identical number of carries as true freshman Jaylon Glover but performed almost 2.0 yards per carry better. But an extra 2 years in college before Jackson got his breakout opportunity put Glover ahead of him in the scoring system.

Also likely to be heavily involved is Micah Bernard who briefly entered the portal this offseason but opted to return to Utah. He was the only pass catching threat out of the backfield for Utah with 33 receptions (next most for any RB was 7). Bernard’s also not too shabby when he gets to run the ball either with a career 5.4 YPC mark. Utah also added 3 true freshmen in the 2023 class rated at least an 0.885 (4-star is above 0.9) in the 247 Sports Composite so the future is very bright as well.

Wide Receiver- 292.4 (7th)

Starters- Mycah PIttman (80.6), Emery Simmons (69.0), Money Parks (60.3)

Reserves- Devaughn Vele (58.8), Makai Cope (57.3), Mikey Matthews (50.1), Sidney Mbanasor (50.1)

Utah’s strength in the pass catchers has traditionally been at tight end (we’ll get to them in a moment) and this receiving group isn’t liable to change that. It has plenty of experience but may be lacking in star power.

The two returners of note are Vele and Parks. Vele tied for the team lead last year with 93 targets and was 2nd in yards, catches, and touchdowns to 1st round NFL draft pick Dalton Kincaid. At 6’5 he was more of a deep threat and got plenty of 50/50 balls on go routes along the sideline. Parks on the other hand is 5’10 but also tried to take the top of defenses with the highest average depth of target on the team. He was 3rd on the squad in receiving yards but struggled with drops.

To complement the group the Utes added a pair of grad transfers. Mycah Pittman started at Oregon before a season at Florida State. He had career highs last year of 32 catches for 330 yards with the Seminoles and provides an experienced option in the slot for Utah even if it’s unlikely he suddenly becomes a star in year #5. Also a member of the 2019 class and 2-time transfer is Emery Simmons who started at North Carolina but was most recently at Indiana. He put up very similar numbers to Pittman (37 catches for 408 yards) playing exclusively out of the slot for the first time. Those two will likely take up any 3rd WR snaps.

Tight End- 99.5 (5th)

Starter- Brant Kuithe (78.2)

Reserves- CJ Jacobsen (42.8), Dallen Bentley (39.0), Landen King (35.2), Munir McClain (33.3), Thomas Yassmin (32.1)

If I were able to manually override one position group to be higher than where the numbers put Utah then it would almost certainly be this one. Kuithe finished 4th in my formula among Pac-12 tight ends but was 1st team preseason all-conference per the media and would’ve been higher if he hadn’t missed 9 games last year due to injury. He has 1,800+ career receiving yards with 16 TDs entering his 6th year of college and is about as sure a bet there is if he stays healthy.

Let’s say instead of sure bets you want to make an upside play. Look no further than Thomas Yassmin. He rates so low in the formula because he spent 4 years of college playing fewer than 100 snaps. Even last year he only got 21 targets. But oh what targets they were. The former class of 2018 recruit out of Australia had nearly 23 yards per reception and made opposing defenders look like play toys at times. PFF thinks his blocking stinks but if Utah just plays him as their 3rd receiver he’s an incredibly scary option.

Offensive Line- 403.3 (6th)

Starters- RT Sataoa Laumea (76.7), LG Keaton Bills (67.0), Spencer Fano (53.8), Caleb Lomu (53.3), RG Michael Mokofisi (52.4)

Reserves- Roger Alderman (44.6), LT Falcon Kaumatule (44.0), C Jaren Kump (43.8), Zereoue Williams (35.1), Johnny Maea (33.6), Koli Faaiu (32.9)

(A note that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.)

Wait, can I take it back? Can I make this the most underrated group? Utah returns 3 starters and 2 of them (RT Laumea and LG Bills) were named preseason 1st team all-conference by the media and by Phil Steele. This is an interesting case of the PFF grades not aligning with more conventional wisdom. Given that your average media member isn’t necessarily an expert on O-line play, I’m not quite sure which I’m inclined to believe. The two projected starters out of the returners are the ones listed in my reserves section in part because they haven’t gotten as much playing time what with their predecessors only now departing.

Spots #3, 4, and 6 on my list all go to true freshmen as the Utes’ years of dominant OL play paid off with a bumper crop of recruits. Spencer Fano and Caleb Lomu were both top-125 national recruits in the 247 Sports Composite. It may not be necessary for them to play right away given the experience Utah has along the offensive line but in the near future that duo will be playing and likely dominating in the Pac-12 (or whatever conference Utah is in).

TOTAL DEFENSE- 1,024.1 (5th)

Defensive Line- 156.7 (10th)

Starters- Simote Pepa (59.2), Junior Tafuna (57.7)

Reserves- Sione Fotu (45.5), Stanley Raass (33.9), Aliki Vimahi (29.0), Keanu Tanuvasa (26.1)

There’s a bit of a disconnect again on the defensive line. Junior Tafuna made 2nd team all-conference last season but his PFF grades were only so-so. The traditional stats also don’t blow you away (26 tackles, 1 sack) but that’s not uncommon for an interior defensive lineman. Admittedly, I didn’t make any changes to player’s listed freshman years based on LDS missions and if I had then Tafuna would come out around a 60.0 but still not 1st team all-conference type player. We’ll see which group is right.

It’s a similar story for Pepa who put up better numbers last year in half as many snaps (23 tackles, 4 sacks). If I had accounted for Pepa’s mission by changing his freshman year to 2021 he would bump all the way up to a 77. When in doubt, trust that Utah is going to have very good play along both lines of scrimmage.

Edge Rushers- 207.8 (7th)

Starters- Van Fillinger (78.3), Jonah Elliss (69.6)

Reserves- Connor O’Toole (67.9), Hunter Clegg (51.6), Jonah Leaea (34.1), Kaeo Akana (30.5)

This is a reasonably experienced group for Utah as the top-3 names in the ratings above combined for 10.5 sacks last year and all played at least 200 defensive snaps. Fillinger has perhaps the highest upside with 5 sacks last year in just 8 games before going out for the year due to injury. Elliss and O’Toole also have at least 5 career starts apiece and have the chance to put up above average seasons without quite as much potential star power.

Outside of that trio the rest of the rotation has just 13 career defensive snaps so it is young and unproven. 4-star true freshman Hunter Clegg is the one to watch as he’ll likely get eased into the rotation but has a ton of talent.

Linebackers- 203.7 (1st)

Starters- Lander Barton (89.4), Karene Reid (60.7)

Reserves- Levani Damuni (59.5), Justin Medlock (47.6), Owen Chambliss (45.4), Johnathan Hall (41.8)

All right Utah fans, let’s see you say that I underrated this position group. It’s definitely a sign of strength when my #1 player in the conference at the position isn’t even slated to start per Phil Steele. We’ll see about all that but this is an incredibly talented group. Steele has both Reid and Damuni on his preseason 2nd team while Reid was 1st team and Barton 2nd team for the media.

Whether it’s Reid or Barton, the Utah linebackers know how to get after the quarterback. Reid finished tied for 2nd on the team last year with 5.0 sacks and Barton was right behind him with 4.5 of his own. Barton was the crown jewel of the 2022 recruiting class and was able to do what he did as the 3rd linebacker as a true freshman.

Challenging him for playing time will be Stanford veteran transfer Levani Damuni who started 27 games for the Cardinal before leaving. My bet is on Damuni ultimately ending up 3rd on the depth chart but if anyone should have veteran savvy, it’s him.

Cornerbacks- 271.6 (7th)

Starters- JaTravis Broughton (67.4), Miles Battle (66.6), Zemaiah Vaughn (64.4)

Reserves- CJ Blocker (51.0), Faybian Marks (49.1), Smith Snowden (48.4), Elijah Davis (33.4), Tao Johnson (31.6)

This should be a solid overall group for Utah but it is definitely missing some star power after losing All-American slot corner Clark Phillips III to the NFL. Two other starters return in JaTravis Broughton and Zemaiah Vaughn but neither had an interception last year. They will be pushed on the outside by Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle. He didn’t quite take a leap last year after a stellar 2021 but has 4 career starts in the SEC and will at the very least be a part of the rotation.

Who replaces Phillips III in the slot will be one of the primary questions of the fall. It seems likely that one of the redshirt freshmen (Tao Johnson or Elijah Davis) will win the job which isn’t great since that duo combined for 13 snaps last season. If there’s a hole in this Utah secondary, that might be it.

Safeties- 184.4 (6th)

Starters- Cole Bishop (79.1), Sione Vaki (58.0)

Reserves- Nate Ritchie (50.2), Brock Fonoimonana (55.2), Jocelyn Malaska (27.0)

Utah has to replace starter R.J Hubert who had 3 interceptions for them last year which was 2nd on the team. Despite that there’s definitely one certainty and that’s Cole Bishop. He saw a good amount of play as a true freshman in 2021 but led the team in defensive snaps last year and was named preseason 1st team all-conference by both Phil Steele and the media. Last year Bishop had 79 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 INT for the Utes.

Sione Vaki was a backup at both safety and corner for Utah last year and is the natural candidate to receive a promotion to a starting role. He had very good coverage stats and the combination of Bishop and Vaki on the backend is going to make it very difficult for opposing QBs to throw deep. The wildcard though is Nate Ritchie who started as a true freshman for Utah in 2020 but then went on a 2-year mission and is now back. He missed the spring due to injury and we’ll see if he’s back in playing shape by the time the season starts.

OVERALL TEAM- 2,060.0 (5th)

There’s clearly a disconnect between the methodology I used and the media. Only three Utah players ranked among the top-50 overall using my formula. Yet six Utes made the media’s preseason all-conference 1st team and none of them were among the three I mentioned. Part of that is due to the issue of properly dealing with LDS missions and whether it’s the right thing to shift back the years they were a freshman for eligibility purposes. Do that for everyone it applies to on the roster and there’s a chance that Utah gets into 4th place.

This is the first year I’ve done this exercise for the entire conference but my guess is that even if Utah ranks 5th in terms of “talent”, this still might be among the most talented teams they’ve ever had under Whittingham. That’s a scary thought considering how often he has been able to do more with less during his tenure.

I don’t think I’d bet on Utah winning the conference yet again but I think their floor is perhaps the highest of any team in the Pac-12 given Whittingham’s track record. It’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which they aren’t in the top-three come December. If they do though it will probably be due to their brutal schedule. Their two misses are Stanford and Wazzu, the teams ranked 11th and 12th in talent by my system. They get 5 home games which helps but have road contests at USC, Oregon State, and Washington. And if you look outside of Pac-12 play they also have to play both Florida and Baylor.

My gut tells me Utah drops one of those non-conference games and goes 7-2 in the Pac-12 for a 9-3 record. But once again don’t be surprised if Utah comes on strong and no one wants to play them should they sneak into the Pac-12 title game via tiebreaker.


Top-10 Players (with position rank and conference rank)

  1. QB Cam Rising, 93.8 (5th, 8th)
  2. LB Lander Barton, 89.4 (1st, 20th)
  3. RB Jaylon Glover, 85.3 (6th, 39th)
  4. WR Mycah Pittman*, 80.6 (10th, 60th)
  5. S Cole Bishop, 79.1 (4th, 65th)
  6. ED Van Fillinger, 78.3 (9th, 68th)
  7. TE Brant Kuithe, 78.2 (4th, 73rd)
  8. OL Sataoa Laumea, 75.3 (13th, 91st)
  9. RB Micah Bernard, 74.7 (14th, 96th)
  10. RB Ja’Quinden Jackson, 69.6 (20th, 143rd)

*Incoming transfer