Utah won the South division of the Pac-12 in 2018, their first win since joining the conference and the final school in that division to do so. Most observers, myself included, think they’ll repeat in 2019; while Oregon won’t play them in the regular season there’s a non-trivial chance the two teams will meet up in December.
Thanks to Cameron Livingston of the Utah Man Podcast for his insights into the program; he’s interviewed Coach Whittingham and an incredible number of assistants and players and was full of helpful information and has done an excellent job over the years covering the Utes on his show. Check out our interview with him below for more details on the offseason staff moves and drama from an unexpected source: special teams.
Offense - #45 in S&P+
Utah’s offensive coordinator for the past two seasons was Troy Taylor, formerly of Eastern Washington. He ran a wide-open, pass-heavy system in Cheney, and I thought it was a curious choice for a conservative program in Utah. Coach Whittingham has made nine OC changes in 11 seasons, and arguably made a 10th in the middle of last year - Cameron tells us of reports that longtime OL Coach (and former Utah co-OC) Harding took on a greater role in gameplanning and play design in 2018. I did six games’ worth of film study on Utah last year and I believe I saw a fairly significant stylistic change in October after losing the final two games in September, with more tight formations and changing the priority of power running vs sideline deep routes. Taylor left in December to become the head coach at Sacramento St, at a lower salary.
Whittingham hired Andy Ludwig to replace him, a familiar name to Oregon fans. He was the OC for the Ducks from 2002-04, the three-year period with Oregon’s lowest offensive output in the last three decades; after being fired he started a four-year stint at Utah which culminated in an undefeated season and Sugar bowl win over Alabama in 2008. He’s since been the OC at Cal, San Diego St, Wisconsin, and most recently Vanderbilt … not always to those fanbases’ delight.
On paper, this offense looks to be pretty solid in 2019, with two good QBs and returning over 80% of their yardage production. But I suspect depth and schematic issues will limit how far this squad will go.
This should be in pretty good shape with returners #2 RB Moss, #4 RB Green, and (back from an offseason injury that kept him from the field in 2018) #7 RB Henry-Cole. Curiously, #23 RB Shyne is transferring out of the program; he was an effective replacement for Moss last year, but Cameron tells us he’s leaving to seek more playing time in his final season because Moss and Henry-Cole have squeezed him out. Moss is one of two backs in the Pac-12 who I thought made up for underwhelming offensive-line blocking with a remarkable ability to run through tackles and get yards after contact.
There’s a good chance the line won’t get a lot better in 2019 - they’re losing three starters (including #70 LT J. Barton to the NFL), as well as two regular backups. I believe they’ll move last year’s starter #77 RT Paulo over to the left side, make backup #55 LG Ford the starter at that spot, and keep #50 C Umana in place. That leaves two spots to fill on the right side, and not a lot of experience to do it with. They’ve brought in three transfers, none of whom have been assigned jersey numbers yet: Alex Locklear from Marshall, Bamidele Olaseni from the Juco market, and Noah Osur-Myers, a sixth man for Wazzu in 2017 but who didn’t see the field in 2018 due to some good fortune in Pullman in terms of injuries to the starters. Interestingly, Cameron tells us Locklear is slated to be a guard; I watched him play right tackle in their bowl game against USF and thought he did alright, but was relying on mass more than technique. OL coach Harding is experienced enough that I believe Cameron when he says there’s confidence that they’ll be able to field five good starters, but this group has perilously little depth and Utah has historically struggled to finish the season strong.
Reviewing Ludwig’s film from last year at Vanderbilt, I’m also concerned at how he calls the run game. He had a very similar situation in Nashville -- excellent backs and a shaky o-line -- and while there are some creative outside runs in the first couple scripted drives, as the game went on he would both get very conventional with run play design and inevitably abandon rushing almost altogether in the second half.
Utah returns both starter #1 QB Huntley and quality backup #15 QB Shelley. I’m not really sure what to expect out of these guys in Ludwig’s system - he requires a precision passer going through progressions of planned route assignments, whereas they’ve previously been operating a system with option routes that mostly utilizes their athleticism. I really don’ t know how he’ll use quarterbacks this mobile; I don’t believe he’s had athletes like these in his career to date.
The passing game was probably what changed the most over the course of 2018 as, I believe, OC Taylor was gradually shown the door. They shied away from contested throws to the middle of the field, even as their best receiver, #18 WR Covey, played out of the slot (Covey tore his ACL in the conference championship game and missed the bowl, he’s had some challenges getting back to the field this offseason). Utah also returns a couple of good, albeit shorter, receivers in #25 WR Dixon and #7 WR Simpkins. There was a strange conflict in the way passing plays developed as well, where the few receivers they had who are over 6’ -- returners #45 WR Nacua and #21 WR Enis, as well as #8 WR Mariner who’s transferring out I believe due to this issue -- were used as decoys or blockers instead of running off DBs.
I was baffled how little Utah used its tight ends last year, especially as the offense shifted away from Taylor’s approach from EWU and I would have expected to see more TE emphasis. They return both #89 TE Fotheringham and #80 TE Kuithe, but neither has more than 20 receptions. Reliance on tight ends is a staple of Ludwig offenses - he had four of them at Vanderbilt and played out of two- or three-tight sets on close to a majority of snaps I watched. Weirdly, while he had an excellent TE in Jared Pinkney in Nashville (mark my words, he’ll be drafted highly in a year’s time), the other three were a notable step down … but that didn’t stop Ludwig from using them heavily and to the offense’s detriment.
Defense - #19 in S&P+
This squad has been operating under a 4-2-5 for several years under DC Scalley, who’s one of quite a few longtime assistants on staff. Like many 4-2’s I’ve studied, it’s an anvil-and-hammer approach, where the defensive line constrains the point of attack and the DBs blanket the backfield in zone, making the backers’ job to diagnose the play and then hit it hard. Utah returns most of the personnel that made this scheme so effective last year.
I think this unit will hold steady in 2019. They lose who I think were their best two guys in support, #15 S Ballard and #13 S Blair (the latter to the NFL). #23 DB Blackmon, who had previously converted from safety to corner, appears to be returning to the free safety position for 2019, with backup #26 S Burgess taking the strong side. #28 DB Guidry also returns, he’s one of the fastest-reacting defensive backs I’ve ever seen and I think he’s been flying under the radar as possibly the best nickel in the conference. I think the safeties in both run support and deep coverage will continue to be pretty good.
I’m a little less optimistic about the corners: passing defense in general and explosive passing plays in particular were the most mediocre aspects of this squad last year, and I think the personnel will be somewhat of a net downgrade in 2019. After losing Blackmon from the perimeter, the two top guys are last year’s starter #1 CB J. Johnson (Cameron tells us there’s NFL interest in him, I wasn’t seeing it on his 2018 film) and former backup #5 CB Lewis; I don’t think I saw anybody else taking corner reps last year and I’m not sure how deep or talented the bench is.
Astonishingly, Utah brings back all eight guys on the two-deep at defensive line: starters #6 DE B. Anae, #92 DE Tupai, #52 DT Penisini, and #99 DT Fotu; as well as backups #42 DE Tafua, #43 DE F. Pututau, #41 DT H. Pututau, and #49 DT Tonga. All of these guys are perfect for this system, and most impressively I don’t believe any of them were rated higher than a 3-star in high school. I think this will continue to be the strength of the squad, and really, any team that has a defensive line this deep, experienced, and powerful will be in any game regardless of the offense or any other unit.
What’s harder to predict is how the crucial linebacker spots will play out, and as I noted in last year’s film study, these two positions are the focal point of the whole defense. They’ve lost their two excellent starters from last year, #30 LB C. Barton and #22 LB Hansen (both in the NFL now), one of the backups in #3 LB Thompson, and perhaps most importantly, the LB coach for the previous four years in Justin Ena (leaving to become the DC at Utah St, along with 2018’s DL coach Gary Andersen becoming the Aggies’ head coach).
Linebacker recruitment at Utah during Ena’s tenure has been perplexing to say the least. When I reviewed the backers Ena recruited starting in 2015, I came to the surprising realization that only one scholarship player out of the 23 on their list was recruited as a high school linebacker and actually played linebacker at Utah. The rest have been transfers, departures, and conversions to and from other positions. Cameron tells us that pattern will continue in 2019, with the likely starters being #43 LB Bowen, a grad transfer from Penn St, and a returner from last year who had previously transferred from BYU, #36 LB Bernard. But even that’s difficult to say: they’ve taken three more transfers this offseason (although I’m unsure of some of their availability to play immediately, most interestingly 5-star Mique Juarez from UCLA), plus they have a freshman who redshirted last year (#45 LB Mata’afa, cousin of Wazzu’s Hercules) and a guy coming back from an LDS mission who’s been converted from a safety (#25 LB Fabrizio). The only one I’ve seen much film on is Bernard, and I wasn’t thrilled with his play in 2018.
Ena put an excellent unit on the field every year he was at Utah, and successfully integrating that many players of unconventional provenance into their culture so quickly and consistently is remarkable. It remains to be seen if the new LB coach Swan from Weber St will have the same ability with an even more disparate group.