Utah won their division the past two years using a roster loaded with upperclassmen who’d developed into NFL-ready talent, and they certainly looked like a dominant team until they hit up hard against injuries or their talent ceiling. But next season they look to be starting almost from scratch as nearly all of those highly productive players have left the program.
Head coach Whittingham is back for his 16th season — at 195 games, he’s the 3rd longest tenured head coach in FBS — along with his entire coaching staff. That kind of continuity and competence at developing overlooked players will probably cushion the blow significantly, but I think the Utes are likely knocked out of title contention for the time being.
The offensive rebuild is less severe than on the defense in terms of number of starters lost, but in terms of actual productivity it might be just as significant. Utah has to replace its quarterback Tyler Huntley, running back Zack Moss, and left tackle Darrin Paulo, each being three-year starters. Those are key positions on any offense, but I think these losses are extra painful because the talent differential between departures and returners is so lopsided - Huntley and Moss’ exceptional out-of-structure play rescued what I thought was uninspired offensive design, and Paulo was by far the best of an otherwise weak offensive line.
There’s an extensive discussion on the podcast of what Utah’s fanbase thinks of OC Ludwig and my interpretation of his offense. I’ll summarize here by saying that I don’t think it works well against above-average Power-5 defenses, it assumes dominant offensive line play that they don’t have access to, and it looked much better than it was as a result of playing outside of its structure rather than within it against inept Pac-12 defenses and head coaches who lost their nerve and self-destructed. For a more thorough breakdown of Ludwig’s offense and its deficiencies, please refer to my in-season write-up of Utah prior to the Pac-12 championship game. I am not a subscriber to the belief that Utah had a great season and then “lost focus” at the end of the year; I think it’s far more instructive to observe that their three losses and closest win (Washington) came against the only opponents that fielded real Power-5 talent.
There are two serious options to replace Huntley, both former 4-star transfers from other major conferences: #8 QB Bentley from South Carolina and #7 QB Rising from Texas. There’s an enormous experience gap here: Bentley started in 33 games going back to the second half of 2016 as a true freshman, then was injured late in the first game of 2019, missed the rest of last season, and grad transferred to Utah at the end of the year. Rising came to Texas as part of the 2018 class, redshirted behind two established QBs, and entered the transfer portal in December of that year to arrive in Salt Lake City in January of 2019. He sat out that year per NCAA rules and as such hasn’t played a snap of college ball.
Scott tells us that Rising has been sitting next to Ludwig in every game and ran the scout team offense, and has been in place for almost a full year before Bentley even came onto the Utes’ radar. I think the implication of all this is fairly clear: Bentley is the experienced, one-year option that they expected to plug in right away to get them through this transition, while Rising is the QB of the future. I’d therefore interpret it as pretty significant if Rising wins the job in terms of him being ahead of schedule, whereas Bentley as the default would simply mean things are going as planned.
It remains to be seen if either have the moxie and improvisational ability to bail this offense out when it gets into trouble, as Huntley so often did. He was by far the top QB in the league on my tally sheet in terms of both frequency and success rate on improvised plays. Ludwig’s offense frequently found itself in 3rd & long situations, but Huntley thrived in those and Pro Football Focus rated him the #1 QB in the country in yards per pass attempt on 3rd downs.
The other key player who made this offense work despite itself was Moss, who on my tally sheet led the league in yards after contact - in fact, fully one third of all successful rushing plays I charted for Utah were Moss’ “YACO” runs; that is, had he gone down on first contact it would have been a loss or minimal gain, but he bounced off or ran through the tackle to convert the play to successful yardage given the down & distance (the next nearest I charted was 17%, by Cal’s Christopher Brown).
I’m not sure any of his potential replacements have the same ability. Three were backups in 2019: #6 RB Brumfield, #4 RB Green, and #5 RB Wilmore. Brumfield and Wilmore got about 50-60 carries each, both under 4.5 YPC and significantly lower than Moss’ average; Green had about half as many carries at 2.9 YPC. Brumfield looks like a short-yardage bruiser without much of a top end, Green is more of a change-of-pace speedster. None of them had Moss’ excellent numbers catching balls out of the backfield either. If any of them is the complete package it’d be Wilmore, but I have my doubts and Scott thinks it’ll be a committee approach.
The reason Moss’ yards after contact is so significant is that he was getting over 6.0 yards per carry despite the fact that the offensive line was clearly not opening up six yards’ worth of space every rush. Even though Utah finished second in the conference behind Oregon in yards per rush, they finished ninth (#91 in FBS) in TFLs allowed per snap at one every 10.6 plays - that’s a lot of going backwards combined with an explosive rush by breaking a tackle, at which they led the league, to balance the books. The weakness at offensive line was apparent enough that even Utah fans online were willing to acknowledge it.
Utah returns four of its o-line starters and its two most used backups from last year, losing only the left tackle Paulo mentioned earlier. The pivotal player is one of those backups, #73 OT Olaseni, a 4-star Juco and former London Blitz BAFA player whose measurables are ideal for the role at 6’7”, 332 lbs. He’s by far the most gifted player on this roster from that standpoint, but when he got the start at right tackle against Washington in 2019 he was routinely wrecked by their pass rush, missed run-blocking assignments on nearly every down, and got pulled after four drives. If he’s ready to play next season his physical talents could be enough to elevate the line’s performance, either at left tackle replacing Paulo or back on the right with #69 OT S. Moala moving from right to left.
But if he’s not, it’s hard to see this line getting better given the talent on the rest of the roster. Plan B would probably be moving 2019’s starting right guard, #55 OL Ford, over to left tackle where he was taking snaps in the abbreviated Spring camp, with returning true freshman mid 3-star backup #53 RG Maea coming off the bench at his vacated spot. Ford’s clearly a natural guard and as a low 3-star I don’t relish seeing what quality edge rushers would do to him.
The rest of the roster is no more talented: #71 LG Daniels and #50 C Umana will almost certainly face no challengers from a unit made up entirely of nine freshmen from the last two classes. Five of those freshmen were high 3-stars out of high school, but Scott says to watch out for #51 OL Bills, a true freshman mid 3-star returning from an LDS mission. There’s an interesting discussion on the podcast about how that absence from football affects players; at any rate I chalk it up as an unknown if he or anybody else is ready to play, and find it puzzling that longtime OL coach Harding has this few experienced options and this uneven of a class balance.
The wideout unit is a mixed bag. The good news is that they return four out of the six most used receivers — #25 WR Dixon, #21 WR Enis, #45 WR Nacua, and #19 WR B. Thompson — and they get back from injury 2018’s leading receiver, #18 WR Covey. The bad news is that completing the two-deep is pretty difficult: the two mid 3-star returners who played last year, Donte Banton and Terrell Perriman, have been suspended from the team indefinitely on some serious legal charges, and the rest of the roster are a pair of true freshmen and a dozen walk-ons.
This was a very productive unit for most of 2019, finishing #8 in FBS at 9.93 yards per attempt, though why that was remains a mystery I’ve yet to crack - they’re hardly overbrimming with talent, and both Oregon and Texas shut them down by playing cover-1 and disrespecting their ability to get separation … but Washington’s top notch DBs used their peculiar cover-3 and got burned several times. My best guess is that this is more about Huntley’s improvisation and gambling on 3rd & long, so at least I’ll have a natural experiment next season with a similar corps and playcaller but a different QB.
Scott tells us to watch out for one of those walk-ons, redshirt freshman #86 WR Vele, and one of those true freshmen, mid 3-star Money Parks, to compete for the sixth spot. I really don’t know what’ll happen if someone on the two-deep gets injured - the rest of the roster is essentially non-existent in terms of experience or rated talent. The Utes simply haven’t done much recruiting at this position, taking only five scholarship receivers in the past three cycles. Four I’ve already mentioned; the fifth was in the 2020 class — Connor O’Toole who was a high 3-star wideout in high school — but Scott calls him a hybrid build who might get converted to tight end.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens, since Ludwig loves two-, three-, and even four-TE sets. He’ll get back two whom I think are excellent, #80 TE Br. Kuithe and #89 TE Fotheringham … in my opinion that’s the best combination of returning TEs in the league.
But he loses the third most frequently used, Hunter Thedford, and that sets up a conundrum: in my opinion Thedford was nowhere near as good as the top two, and possibly one of the weakest TEs in the league (not that it stopped Ludwig from trotting out 13-personnel all the time; a similar situation as he had at Oregon in 2002-04 when his offenses were unwatchable). The two returners Scott mentioned as possible replacements were #40 TE Niumatalolo (son of Navy head coach Ken) and #87 TE Yassmin; both played extensively in 2019 on special teams but couldn’t beat out Thedford for the job on offense.
DC Scalley returns to the program after his own set of offseason issues, and the Utes look to continue his aggressive 4-2-5 structure. Last year this squad played in a system whose pieces all worked together in concert: excellent DBs who gave the pass rush time and could come down fast in run support and an aggressive pair of linebackers as the fulcrum meant a truly elite pass defense. However I thought their run defense was a bit of a mirage, and got exposed at the end of the year.
In terms of experience and talent, the defensive ends are probably in the best shape. They lose Bradlee Anae, whose 13 sacks were the second most in the league, but return the starter on the other side, #42 DE Tafua, as well as rotational end #92 DE Tupai (apparently back from some personal leave). Both are borderline 4-stars and had 67 tackles, 12 TFLs, and four sacks between them. There are some interesting options for the backups as well, two 4-stars from the 2020 class in Xavier Carlton and Van Fillinger. The other three or four scholarship kids on the roster were mid 3-star freshmen who didn’t see the field much at all last year, so I have my doubts they’ll beat out the raw incoming talent, though Scott said the staff is high on #46 DE Suguturaga who’s back from a church mission. I don’t think they’ll replace Anae’s havoc right away, but there are enough intriguing pieces here that they might get there down the road.
I think they’re in more trouble with the tackles, however. They lose both starters, Leki Fotu and John Penisini, and I thought their returning backups, #98 DT V. Moala and #49 DT Tonga, weren’t nearly as effective - this defensive structure doesn’t use tackles as mere space-fillers, rather they have to actively open holes for the linebackers to fire through, and that wasn’t really happening when Fotu or Penisini rotated out. Scott thinks #41 DL H. Pututau (eldest of four Pututaus on the roster), who played a bit at end last year, might convert to tackle since he’s big enough, but that’s it in terms of experience … the rest of the possible rotation at tackle are mid 3-stars or lower who I don’t believe have played: six freshmen, six walk-ons, and a journeyman transfer from Michigan St. As Scott put it on the podcast, “You’re going to see a weeding-out process as the season goes on; guys are going to be given opportunities and if they don’t get the job done, somebody else is going to step in and see if they can.”
Utah loses one of its two starting linebackers, Francis Bernard, but returns the other, #20 LB Lloyd. This was a highly aggressive and effective unit last year, although there were times when that aggression could be used against them - they immediately pick a hole and hit it hard, but I saw a few lines able to fool them coming off a combo block or bringing the H-back around, and with only two backers the second level is exposed if they’ve guessed wrong.
Given how much of the defense is contingent on those two guys, replacing Bernard is perhaps the most fraught question the team faces … and the options don’t look great. The most likely was Sione Lund, a 4-star transfer from Stanford who got some backup reps last year, but he’s also been suspended indefinitely from the team. The other backup, #55 LB Mata’afa (cousin of Wazzu’s Hercules), is a mid 3-star redshirt sophomore and Scott tells us he’s struggled with injuries and inconsistency his entire career. They brought in two backers in the 2020 class, Sione Fotu who was a mid 3-star ILB in high school and Graham Faloona who was a low 3-star OLB, but I don’t believe either enrolled early and I have a hard time seeing either stepping into Bernard’s shoes.
That’s it, those are all the scholarship linebackers that Utah has on the roster. They’ve converted a DB, #29 LB Sewell (brother of Oregon’s Penei), but he’s a 2-star senior who wasn’t fast enough to play safety. That continues a peculiar tradition at Utah, which is that almost all of their backers weren’t recruited to Utah as backers, and Scott suspects they may wind up converting another DB or DE to the position for depth.
Mata’afa looks like the safest bet to win the job but I think this unit is in for a downturn and may really struggle if they need to rotate or deal with an injury. Lloyd and Bernard were much better than I was expecting in 2019 since their play wasn’t too impressive as backups in 2018, so perhaps I should have more faith in Utah’s coaches to make lemonade out of lemons, but this is some very unripe fruit to work with.
The secondary loses everybody: starters Julian Blackmon, Terrell Burgess, Javelin Guidry, and Jaylon Johnson are all now in the NFL. Those four almost never left the field and I don’t have much film at all on any of the backups. They’ve also lost the two corners who were rotating opposite Johnson, Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse - I thought those two were the weakest link of the defense, but with Utah’s pass rush there weren’t a lot of opportunities for QBs to pick on them.
There are two other quasi-losses here: a backup safety, #10 DB Hubert, remains on the team, though he tore his ACL in the Pac-12 title game (after replacing Blackmon who’d done the same thing, bizarrely) and Scott is skeptical he’ll be in the running for a starting job. Sewell took Hubert’s place in that game, but he’s a linebacker now.
Utah took two 4-star commits in the 2020 class, #21 CB Phillips who enrolled early and Nate Ritchie who didn’t. Given the uncertainty in this unit, I think both will wind up as starters. Phillips is listed at 5’10” (and that’s being generous) and I would have figured he’d play nickel, but Scott tells us he’s slotted for field or boundary corner instead. Ritchie’s built like a strong safety.
Beyond those two, however, it’s anybody’s guess for the other three starting spots and the entire slate of backups. They have a dozen more DBs on scholarship and each is a mid 3-star (their average in the 24/7 composite is .8498), but all 12 have never or virtually never played college ball: five are true freshman and the other seven guys couldn’t win meaningful playing time over Lewis or Nurse, which in my opinion was a low bar. Utah’s just going to need time to shake down this position group to figure it out, and until they do I think they’re facing one of the biggest unit dropoffs in the league.
Last summer’s preview was less about predicting personnel — they returned basically the entire two-deep from 2018, so that wasn’t much of a challenge — and more about how the course of the season would go for the Utes. I think my qualms about Ludwig’s offense were ultimately borne out in that they’d crush their very weak schedule and then flame out in the championship game (I’m particularly proud of a 10-minute segment on the June 15, 2019 Quack-12 podcast starting at 7:00, in which I laid out Utah’s entire 2019 season perfectly). The closest thing to a whiff on the offense was the right side of the o-line, where I failed to mention the two guys who’d win the RG and RT spots; on the other hand, I nailed the other three spots and correctly predicted they’d struggle with depth and that this would be the Achilles’ heel of the offense, for pretty much the same reason I didn’t see those guys coming: they didn’t have any outstanding talent to work with.
On the defense, I was caught by surprise (as was everybody else) that one of the projected starting linebackers suddenly left the program, but I got the other starter and the general weirdness of the position right. The defensive line was a no-brainer since they returned all eight guys on the two-deep, no credit there. I got every starter in the secondary correct and I think I was right to both praise the safeties and express some concern about half of the corners, though I probably should have been more clearly effusive about how good the other corner was - Utah fans got after me online for a poor turn of phrase about Johnson; I was trying to confess that I have a hard time seeing lockdown corners because their whole virtue is that no one throws against them, so the broadcast cameras don’t show them. These are a longstanding problems (the camera angles and my clumsy writing) and I take every opportunity I can to remedy both.