It’s officially game week for Utah football and their depth chart is scheduled to be released some time this afternoon. I’ve been hanging around Utah football, well, quite a bit this year and think I can give you a pretty good idea of what said depth chart will look like — and why. Going by position groups, here’s a breakdown of the 2018 Utah football roster FOUR days away from kickoff.
For possibly the first time in the Pac-12 era, the Utes have a stable of quarterbacks that gives the team a sense of comfort. In years past, it almost always seemed as if they were an injury or two away from complete derailment. It’s an uneasy feeling that, at least for now, seems to be behind Utah football.
Tyler Huntley is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12. The junior out of Hallandale HS in Florida is poised to have a breakout year in 2018 – IF he can stay healthy.
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) March 15, 2018
Huntley accounted for nearly 300 yards per game in 2017, an impressive feat considering the limited snaps he saw as a freshman and the infancy of Troy Taylor’s offense. Seeing a large portion of Tyler’s reps in the spring and fall camp made two things clear: he’s more durable and more comfortable. Not only did he put on a considerable amount of muscle in the offseason, he also seemed to really gain knowledge and trust in the offense that he’s been handed the keys to. From the looks of it, there’s no reason that Huntley shouldn’t be one of the premier dual-threat QB’s out west.
Huntley is the unquestioned starter, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a quarterback battle ongoing up on the hill. Two high-profile recruits are jousting for the No. 2 spot and possibly the future starting job.
Redshirt freshman Jason Shelley entered the program a year ago after shattering high school records and earning all-state honors in Texas. A hair under six-feet tall, Shelley was knocked for his size coming out of prep school but was still among the nation’s top dual-threat prospects. He has used the spring and fall camp to prove that he’s serviceable.
Just one of Jason Shelley’s TD passes today… pic.twitter.com/dFxhQhB9qN
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) August 15, 2018
Possibly Utah’s top QB recruit ever landed, true freshman Jack Tuttle has already shown why he was so coveted coming out of Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, CA. Tuttle was the fourth-ranked quarterback recruit in the country according to rivals.com and it’s become clear why since he stepped foot on campus this spring. He’s had his fair share of freshman mistakes, but he’s also regularly wowed the media crowd with NFL-type throws.
— KYLE F GUNTHER (@GuntherESPN700) August 6, 2018
The quarterback position at the University of Utah looks bright for the foreseeable future.
In the Backfield
A wave of concern crashed down on Ute faithful in 2017 when starting RB Armand Shyne went down in fall camp with his second straight season-ending injury. The concern subsided quickly when Zack Moss burst onto the scene in a, well, quite physical manner.
Zack Moss is the highest-graded returning player at Utah this season pic.twitter.com/hYSnMrBZRK
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 15, 2018
The sophomore gave the Utes a needed lift in 2017, gaining 1,173 yards on 214 carries and proving that he could be a legitimate full-time back in the Pac-12. Both Moss and Shyne are healthy heading into 2018 and even have some insurance behind them from freshmen TJ Green and Devin Brumfield. Junior Devonta’e Henry-Cole will miss the season as he recovers from arm surgery.
The departure of Darren Carrington and Raelon Singleton, the Utes top two pass catchers from a year ago, made the wide receiver position somewhat of a question mark coming into 2018. It seems that, at least for now, that question has been answered.
Utes receivers coach Guy Holliday has been raving about his wideouts since spring.
Although there may not be that single ‘go-to-guy’ on the roster, it seems that the position is possibly as deep and consistent as it’s been in the Pac-12 era.
Freshman All-American Britain Covey returns to the program after a two-year church mission, bringing back his shifty speed and decisive route-running. Covey wreaked havoc on Pac-12 defenses in 2015, but is looking to uptick that production this season as he joins Troy Taylor’s more pass-friendly offense.
The Utes also bring back one of their most consistent contributors over the last two seasons in junior Demari Simpkins. A high school teammate of Huntley and Moss, Simpkins adds familiarity and comfort within the offense. His relationship with QB1 and fundamental receiver play make a recipe for a lot of catches this fall.
A player that could possibly develop into one of those ‘go-to-guys’ is Siaosi Mariner. We saw flashes of brilliance from Mariner in 2017 when he led the team in yards per reception, but only saw that on a limited basis. He’s shown the tools to be a legitimate deep threat and has the confidence to boot.
Utah WR Siaosi Mariner doesn’t care how he gets there, he’s just concerned about getting in the end zone.
“We’re going to have some fun in the end zone this year.” pic.twitter.com/76I36CEXGE
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) August 21, 2018
With room for about 8 receivers in the rotation, there will be a by-committee approach to filling the rest of the void left by Carrington and Singleton. True freshman Solomon Enis will contend with Samson Nacua, Bryan Thompson and a slew of other receivers for reps on the outside.
Although not utilized all that often in recent years, we’ve seen some more activity out of the tight ends in spring and fall camp.
Junior Jake Jackson is looking like the clear cut No. 1, but Bapa Falemaka and Cole Fotheringham have also turned some heads. The reps will be few and far between for any others.
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) March 13, 2018
In the Trenches
One of the few true concerns coming into this year, the offensive line has seemed to come together quite nicely and that’s not just out of luck. Utes O-Line coach Jim Harding is one of the best in the business and there’s a reason he’s been getting NFL looks as of late.
The offensive line uncharacteristically struggled at times in 2017 but look to have solidified their lineup this offseason with their four returning starters. Sixth-year senior and team captain Lo Falemaka will hold down center duties while Jackson Barton(Sr.) and Darrin Paulo(Jr.) man the tackle spots. Senior Jordan Agasiva rounds out the returning starters at guard while the battle for LG rages on between freshman Nick Ford and sophomore Orlando Umana.
Sixth-year senior center Lo Falemaka, a clear leader on the O Line and entire team. pic.twitter.com/rVM2teol5G
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) August 15, 2018
Utah will look to Paul Toala, Alani Havili-Katoa, Johnny Capra and Braeden Daniels for help along the O-Line, but depth could become an issue here if injuries start to stack up.
Manning the Middle
The defensive side of the ball is what really gets me excited for 2018 and it all starts with the man in the middle. Junior defensive tackle Leki Fotu possesses all the tools necessary to be one of the most dominant defensive lineman in college football. His combination of size, strength and agility doesn’t come around very often.
Cutting room floor video of Kyle Whittingham talking about Leki Fotu and the depth at cornerback pic.twitter.com/I8bcbbBgJK
— JP Chunga (@JP_Chunga) July 26, 2018
A definitive starter hasn’t been named next to Fotu so expect a 3-4 man rotation on the other DT spot, headlined by Hauati Pututau, Pita Tonga and John Penisini.
Setting the Edge
There are always expectations for defensive ends in a place that often dubs itself “Sack Lake City” and 2018 is no exception. With help from Fotu, a stout secondary and one of the conferences’ premier pass rushers in junior Bradlee Anae, there’s no reason Sack Lake City shouldn’t be a reality this fall.
Most Sacks in CFP Era
1. Clemson – 186
2. Alabama – 178
3. Washington – 162
4. Utah – 159
5. Penn St – 158
6. Ohio State – 155
6. TCU – 155
8. Arizona St – 152
8. Michigan – 152
10. Texas – 149
— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) August 8, 2018
Opposite of Anae is where the Utes still have questions. It looks like junior Caleb Repp will get starter “Repp’s” but he was pushed in camp by Maxs Tupai, Mika Tafua and Nick Heninger. Expect them and a couple others to help out on the weak side.
Backing it Up
The starting linebacker duo of Chase Hansen and Cody Barton is a dynamic one. The two seniors are both captains/field generals on the defensive side of the ball and have looked the part since joining forces this spring. The concern at this position was always going to be depth. A couple of Pac-12 ready transfers alleviates a lot of that concern.
Junior transfer out of BYU Francis Bernard joins the program after two solid years with the Cougars. He adds immediate depth, pass coverage and playmaking at the position. Another newcomer in Bryant Pirtle does the same. The junior out of Pima CC(CA) tallied 72 tackles and garnered second-team all-conference honors during his sophomore year. Donavan Thompson started part-time for the Utes last year and is a reliable rotation guy as well.
If they can get the rotation right and mix the new guys in seamlessly, they have the potential to be, at the very least, a really fun unit to watch.
The Utes have established themselves as one of the top NFL development teams in the nation during Kyle Whittingham’s era and it’s been highlighted by their defensive backs. They aren’t letting up. Sharrieff Shah’s secondary is, by all accounts, the deepest in school history but defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley needs them to prove it first.
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) August 15, 2018
Utah returns nearly their entire contributing secondary from last season, including All-Conference performer and Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP Julian Blackmon. Blackmon will hold down the corner spot opposite of Jaylon Johnson, a sophomore who played in all 12 games last season before being sidelined(surgery) for the bowl game. Wide receiver turned DB Tyrone Smith missed all of last season, but is expected to compete for playing time at outside corner immediately.
The Utes will probably utilize the nickel package more often than not in 2018, meaning more defensive backs will see the field. Along with Blackmon and Johnson, Utah returns Javelin Guidry, a nickel specialist who played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman.
Throughout spring and fall, junior transfer Tareke Lewis has gotten most of the first-team reps alongside Guidry and seems to have earned that other nickel spot.
As Chase Hansen moves to linebacker, his void at safety will be filled by senior Corrion Ballard. Ballard saw a lot of time in 2017 due to injuries to both Hansen and SS Marquise Blair.
Speaking of Blair, it appears the boom is back. One of the hardest-hitting players in college football, Blair struck fear into opposing ball carriers in 2017 before going down in week 9. The former JUCO All-American comes into this season healthy and ready to bounce back.
— ESPN 700 (@ESPN700) August 2, 2018
Depth doesn’t look to be an issue for this secondary as both safety and corner positions have solid options two and three deep.
Utah looks to be a pretty well-rounded football team in 2018, but their most talented group might just be the kicking specialists. I mean, it’s not very often that a team holds winners of both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards on its roster. In fact, Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky are the first to do it in the history of college football.
Matt Gay has near unlimited range and the former UVU soccer player is coming off a consensus All-American season after being a walk-on in 2017. We’ve seen him hit from as far as 70 in practice, making the Utes a threat to score three points anytime they approach midfield.
— ESPN 700 (@ESPN700) August 22, 2018
The other consensus All-American on the team is the Thunder from Down Under, Mitch Wishnowsky. The former Aussie rules footballer has been a finalist for the Ray Guy award each of his two seasons as a Ute and comes into 2018 as the clear favorite to win the award again.
It doesn’t help to have those weapons at your disposal if you can’t get them the ball, however, and that was an issue last season. The Utes believe they have that figured out. Utah went out and specifically recruited for a long-snapper and it looks like they found their guy. Maddie Golden is a freshman out of Piedmont, South Carolina. He’s a five-star recruit. I’ve personally seen him snap hundreds of balls and zero of them have been off target. Enough said.
With a reputation for having one of the best special teams units in collegiate football, the Utes hope to win the field position battle every week. Their kicking game obviously helps, but it doesn’t hurt to run a few back, too.
Utah has no shortage of speedy, shifty guys, but it takes much more than that to be a returnman. The plays with the highest turnover-rate in football are on punts and kickoffs. Returnmen routinely put the ball on the ground, something that’s not going to get you any playing time on a Kyle Whittingham coached team.
Some sure handed guys you should expect to see catching punts and kicks are Britain Covey, Demari Simpkins and Julian Blackmon.
Wrapping it up
On paper, the Utes look poised to make a run at a Pac-12 South title and a birth to that ever-elisuve conference title game. They’ve been contenders ‘on paper’ before, though, and those expectations can add unwanted pressure to a inexperienced group. This team seems different, though. Kyle Whittingham always runs a clean program, but the focus and execution throughout the offseason was next-level impressive. The laser like focus is something Whittingham has said reminds him of his 2008 team that went 13-0.
At the end of the day, the Utes are reaching new heights as a program on a regular basis. NFL success, high-level coaching staff, desired recruits and continued bowl success should be a recipe for conference championships. Instead, the Utes are the only team in the south that hasn’t reached the title game. Is this the year that the most consistent team in the conference finally gets over the Pac-12 hump?
The Utes kickoff their highly-anticipated 125th season this Thursday as they welcome the Weber State Wildcats to Rice-Eccles Stadium(6p.m.).
For the most in-depth coverage of Utah football, tune in to ESPN700, follow along on Twitter and keep up at ESPN700SPORTS.com.
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