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Duck Dive: Utah Football 2021 Preview

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Going deep with the Utes’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Scott Omer & Cameron Livingston of Utah Man Podcast for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Utah Utes roster. Listen HERE.


NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Utah surprised many observers when #7 QB Rising, the 4-star transfer from Texas who’d never played a snap of college ball, was the starter in Utah’s delayed opener against USC, beating out fellow transfer and longtime South Carolina starter Jake Bentley. Unfortunately Rising was injured in the first quarter of that game, and Bentley took over for most of the rest of the season. He was eventually benched by the second half of Utah’s final game, and in another surprise, walk-on Drew Lisk led the Utes to a comeback win over Wazzu.

Both Bentley and Lisk have since transferred out of Salt Lake City, and Rising was unavailable throughout Spring practices due to his injury. It was a three-way race in Spring for the starting job between #12 QB Brewer, a longtime starter and grad transfer from Baylor, and two freshmen, #3 QB Jackson (another Texas transfer) and 2021 4-star #8 QB Costelli.

The Spring game made it clear there wasn’t much competition here: Brewer was the only player in a no-contact jersey, with Jackson and Costelli running for their lives on most plays. He’s the only upperclassman in the room, and even if Rising is back for the Fall, Cam and Scott think Brewer has had too much time in place to knock him off.

I’m not sure how well Brewer fits in OC Ludwig’s offense; he’s not the same kind of scrambler that Tyler Huntley was in Ludwig’s first year back with Utah, and I spent a lot of time in my 2019 championship game preview talking about how necessary an elite scrambler is with this coordinator and offensive line. But quarterback depth should be decent with Rising in place plus the well-regarded freshmen.

Utah’s running backs also presented a lot of surprises. They returned two promising backups, Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore, but they were quickly eclipsed by true freshman Ty Jordan who had an incredible season with 7.2 ypc over his 83 rushes and another 126 yards through the air. Jordan sadly passed away shortly after the season, and Spring game proceeds went towards a scholarship fund in his honor.

Brumfield and Wilmore have both transferred out, leaving Utah with just one returning back, #2 RB Bernard. He had an intriguing freshman season as a backup with 5.1 ypc, but on only 15 rushes. Utah has since filled up on transfers: #0 RB Curry from LSU with 3.7 ypc on 91 rushes and #5 RB Pledger from Oklahoma with 5.1 ypc on 135 rushes; both played fairly well in the Spring game.

Utah recently added the commitment of Tavion Thomas (after we recorded with Cam and Scott) who was a 2018 commit to Cincinnati, played a season and a half there, and then went to a Juco for 2020 - he averaged 5.8 ypc on 179 rushes across both schools. Utah also took a 4-star back in the 2021 cycle, Ricky Parks, though like Thomas he wasn’t available for the Spring.

So that’s five backs in the room and I’m sure enough will be playable that this is more than adequate depth at the position for a single-back offense. What I’m not sure about, simply because I haven’t seen any of them really play before, is if one of them can become the every-down back that Utah has relied on for years, especially since this offense seems to really need a back who can generate a lot of yards after contact. I suspect this’ll be a committee approach for a while, hoping that one of them breaks out.

NCAA Football: Utah at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

By contrast, there are no surprises at all in the tight end room: both #80 TE Br. Kuithe and #89 TE Fotheringham are back, and I think that’s the best 1-2 combination of tight ends in the league. This offense likes to use a lot of tight ends, and on 13-personnel plays I saw San Diego transfer #86 TE Kincaid blocking as well.

This unit has three other returners plus a true freshman arriving in the fall; we haven’t seen any of them play and on paper there’s not a lot of talent among the backups. I think it would be a pretty significant blow if either of the starters were unavailable since so much of the offense has gone through them, in one way or the other, for so long. But between the number of bodies in the room and Ludwig’s monomaniacal reliance on the position, I’m very certain the structure of the offense wouldn’t change perceptibly if so.

The wideouts, however, do seem to be running low on bodies, though as we joked about on the podcast, maybe in a heavily 12- and 13-personnel offense it’s not that big of a deal. Longtime starters Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua both transferred out of the program (and to rivals on the schedule to boot; ASU and BYU, respectively).

Utah returns #18 WR Covey, a 2015 recruit who after multiple eligibility pauses somehow still has two seasons left to play, as well as #21 WR Enis who will be going into his fourth season. Covey is impossible not to like, while I think Enis has been underutilized and might be due for a breakout with little other competition. The surprise of the Spring game was #17 WR Vele, a walk-on who had several impressive catches after only getting a couple of targets in 2020.

There’s some uncertainty about the fourth returner, #25 WR Dixon - he’s been in and out of the transfer portal multiple times after not playing in 2020 (he had 932 receiving yards on 56 catches in the previous two years). Cam provided a nice summary of the situation on the podcast. I’m not sure how much playing time he’ll get given that he’s built like a slot guy and Covey seems to have that covered - Utah needs more outside receivers instead.

The rest of the wide receiver room is totally untested - it’s four 2020 recruits who didn’t see the field last year plus two 2021 true freshmen, one of whom isn’t on campus yet. I’ve got no clue who if any will be ready to play; all six are low-to-mid 3-stars except #81 WR O’Toole, who’s big enough to convert to a tight end (and Ludwig might just do that).

Even though I pretty roundly criticized them in 2019, I was expecting to see some improvement along the offensive line in 2020. That’s because they returned four starters plus two backups from that line, and had a steady hand developing them in OL coach Harding. However, I was shocked to see that four of those six returners didn’t play in most games, as Harding blew up the line twice over the last season.

Cam seemed to think that the first time, for the opener against USC, this was related to unavailabilities from covid. I’m not sure what to think of that, since the next week Harding blew the line up a second time, going with an entirely new lineup (in which they pitched a 21-0 first-half shutout in Seattle) and then sticking with that configuration for the rest of the season. All the shifts are summarized on the podcast; ultimately Utah wound up with a line that had three freshmen and two vets on it, only one of which I really liked.

Those five all return, and Scott believes Utah will stick with them as their starters to begin 2021 as well. From left to right, in 2020 it was #69 LT S. Moala (2019’s RT), #51 LG Bills (redshirt freshman), #55 C Ford (2019’s RG), #78 RG Laumea (redshirt freshman), and #68 RT Kump (true freshman).

I don’t belive there are any departures from this unit, which means four of those returners from 2019 are also still available even though they didn’t get much play if any in 2020: #50 OL Umana (2019’s C), #71 OL Daniels (2019’s LG), #53 OL Maea (2019’s sixth man), and #77 OL Olaseni (a 4-star Juco with ideal measurements for a tackle but who’s yet to pan out).

So that’s plenty of experienced depth and it was good for Utah to deploy the same starting five in their final four games of the 2020 season. But I’m not optimistic this group will take the step forward it needs to; in my opinion Harding hasn’t produced a high quality o-line since Garett Bolles left for the NFL after the 2016 season. I liked Laumea’s debut, but otherwise haven’t been impressed with the eight others I’ve mentioned. He and Olaseni are the only 4-stars on the roster, and in fact Bills, Daniels, Ford, and Moala are the four lowest rated linemen in the 24/7 composite of the unit.

We’ve seen in the past what happens with Ludwig’s offense when he has a mediocre line going up against talented defenses, and I think that could be a real limitation in 2021. It would mean needing to find a strong YAC back among five unproven options, and keeping 7- or 8-man protections in passing situations that would limit receiving options, which is the opposite of what Brewer is used to from Baylor’s offense.


Washington State v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Defense

The headline here is that Utah’s defense brings back virtually everybody who played in 2020 plus the entire staff. The subhead, however, is that since they had lost just about everybody off their senior- and NFL-laden 2019 defense and only played five games last year, it’s still a relatively green squad.

After a bit of experimentation, Utah settled on two of the four Pututau brothers on the roster as their starting tackles: #41 DT H. Pututau and #99 DT Te. Pututau (the other two are a backup DT and a linebacker), with #90 DT Kaufusi and #98 DT V. Moala as the rotational guys. Noteworthy here is that Kaufusi is built like a defensive end instead of a tackle, and that’s where he played at BYU before transferring to Utah. I think they slid him over because the rest of this unit is pretty young and might not have been at playing weight yet; it’ll be interesting to see if that changes and they can move Kaufusi back to end.

As expected, the 2020 defensive end starters were the backups from 2019, #42 DE Tafua and #92 DE Tupai. I was a little surprised that I didn’t see nearly as much rotation at end as I did for the tackles, meaning they didn’t get a lot of reps for the two 4-star true freshmen in 2020, #44 DE Carlton and #7 DE Fillinger. I believe I saw at least as much of #91 DE Bl. Kuithe (younger brother of the tight end), a mid 3-star sophomore. Cam and Scott thought the program wanted to spend more time developing those 2020 ends, but I’ve seen other programs much more eager to throw in their new blue chips at the position, especially in a mulligan year.

The only returning starter from 2019’s defense, #0 LB Lloyd, is back again after leading the team in tackles, as well as another convert from safety, #1 LB Sewell (brother of Oregon’s Penei and Noah). The backup who had the most tackles was #9 LB Fotu; he’s leaving for an LDS mission but plans to return in the future and is one of only two somewhat significant losses on the defense.

That presents a challenging question for the backups. We saw only a handful of reps for walk-on #32 LB Anae (cousin of 2019’s starting DE Bradlee) and #55 LB Mata’afa (cousin of Wazzu’s Hercules), and I don’t think I saw anyone else at the position. Utah took a very large 2021 class here with six backers, which is already an oddly high number for their 4-2-5 system. But it’s doubly curious for Utah with their history of very rarely playing a LB whom they recruited out of high school as a LB, instead almost exclusively playing transfers and positional converts for the last six seasons. It will be interesting to see if they’re trying to break that trend, and if so whether this crop of true freshmen break into the rotation early.

Oregon State v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Utah’s starting corners in 2020 were #4 CB Broughton and #21 CB Phillips, with I believe a rotation in their nickel defense between #15 CB Mataele and #23 CB Marks. After losing so much from the 2019 defense, I expected some growing pains which we certainly saw, though I was still surprised at how young this group skewed - Broughton was a redshirt freshman and Phillips a true freshman (albeit a 4-star), and the rest of the unit comprised three 2019 recruits and two from 2020 (they’ve added just one more in the 2021 cycle); I don’t believe any of them saw the field last year. I think there’s still some growing up to do here and they’ll be vulnerable for a bit, and on the podcast nobody was sure what would happen in case of an injury.

The Utes return #19 DB Davis at free safety, one of the oldest members of the team although he wasn’t really part of the 2019 defensive backfield. As predicted, the strong safety spot was taken by the other 4-star secondary recruit from 2020, #6 DB Ritchie. Like the backer Fotu, Ritchie is also leaving on an LDS mission with plans to return in the future, and he represents the most significant loss to the defense for 2021 considering that he jumped the rest of the safeties to start as a true freshman.

It’s an open question who replaces Ritchie, since #10 DB Hubert, whom Oregon fans may remember was injured in the 2019 title game, looks to be unavailable with another injury. There were a few reps in 2020 for a couple of true freshmen: low 3-star #13 DB Latu and walk-on #16 DB Ze. Vaughn. Cam and Scott both think that a 2021 recruit, mid-3 star #6 DB Bishop, will wind up winning the strong safety job. This unit seems to be fairly depleted in bodies after several years of being raided for linebacker converts.

So while the defensive front seems well set with interesting possibilities at the backup spots, I think depth in the secondary looks precarious to me. There will likely be at least one open battle for starter at strong safety and perhaps nickel as well, I didn’t see much diversity in 2020, and the fact that two true freshmen last year and perhaps a third this year immediately won jobs doesn’t speak too well of the backups. This is the defensive unit I’ll be watching the most in Fall to see if they have a robust enough group to survive Utah’s typical November troubles.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Utah Spring Game Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accountability Corner

Even though this team lost a lot from 2019, I called it a high-floor team when making predictions and thought they’d start out rough and steadily climb up over the season - that’s exactly what happened, with their scoring margins marching up every game from deep in the red to big in the black.

I was surprised by a few things in Utah’s offense in 2020 compared to my expectations in last summer’s preview - I thought Bentley would win the QB job by default, I had no idea that Jordan would have such an amazing freshman season, and the offensive line choices were puzzling to say the least. I was skeptical of Scott’s story last summer that Rising was absorbing Ludwig’s offense by being the OC’s right-hand man, but maybe I should have been more of a believer there. I don’t think I or anyone else could have seen Jordan coming, and I’m sad we won’t get to see the rest of his career. The offensive line, however, I’ll still take some credit for despite the personnel re-arrangements - I’ve been getting more vocal in my concerns that Harding has lost his touch for some time now.

On the defense, I was pretty gloomy about Utah’s prospects at replacing one of their two starting linebackers since that position is the fulcrum of the entire squad and the options didn’t look promising; I dismissed Sewell almost out of hand and shame on me for not trusting that family to produce yet another starter (I still think the jury’s out on whether he becomes a top level backer, though - not enough data yet). The rest of the positions, however, I nailed almost perfectly despite the complete roster turnover: that the Pututau tackles would jump the returning 2019 backups but the 2019 backup ends would get the start over the freshmen 4-stars, and that Phillips and Ritchie would win starting jobs in the secondary despite their youth.


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