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Duck Dive: Utah Football 2022 Preview

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

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Special thanks to Greg West of No Truck Stops for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Utah’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

After an early injury derailed his 2020 season, then being held out of the first few games of 2021, #7 QB Rising played the rest of the season until the final drive of the Rose Bowl. He’s unquestionably the starter at this point, and it’s remarkable how much more effective the offense is with him in compared to other quarterbacks over the past two seasons.

If Rising is unavailable, it’s difficult to identify the primary backup. Ostensibly it would be #3 QB Jackson, a high 4-star in the 2020 class who spent a year at Texas before transferring last offseason to Utah. But when 24/7 re-evaluated his rating as a transfer it was the biggest single drop I’ve ever seen down to a low 3-star, and he’s now been passed up several times including twice at Utah when Rising was injured – at the beginning of last year when Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer started, and at the end of the Rose Bowl when Utah went with walk-on #16 QB Barnes.

The other options include Nate Johnson, a 4-star 2022 recruit who arrives in the Fall, mid 3-star true freshman #8 QB Rose, and the unrated Juco addition #18 QB Bottari. Brewer and former 4-star Peter Costelli have transferred out, and low 3-star Cooper Justice is no longer on the roster. Johnson may well be the quarterback of the future for Utah, but expecting him to play this season as a true freshman who didn’t take in Spring practices is a tall order. Greg was blunt on the podcast in saying that if Rising goes down then Utah goes down with him, and he has no faith that any other QB in the room can run the offense at all.

Even though most observers, Greg included, don’t think Utah’s offense runs through its wide receivers, the eight departures here create significant ripple effects throughout the squad so we need to start with this unit. In particular Britain Covey, and to a lesser extent Theo Howard, were extremely versatile and played multiple roles in the offense out of the slot and in running sweeps and other gadget plays, so their losses are tough ones in terms of generating 3rd down conversions. The Utes are also switching a high 3-star 2020 recruit out of the wide receiver unit, #81 DE O’Toole – I thought he was big enough that he might have converted to a TE, but instead he’s headed to the defense. There are five additional departures from the WR unit, none of whom caught a pass last year, though Ryan Peppins leaving as a 2022 recruit before he ever got to campus was unusual.

Greg doesn’t expect much production out of the returning receivers now that the Swiss-army-knife guys are no longer in the room, and I agree. There are only four scholarship returners in the room: #21 WR Enis, #25 WR Dixon, #10 WR Parks, and #11 WR Cope. Last year those four posted fewer receiving yards combined than did returning walk-on #17 WR Vele, who I think will be the top outside receiver in 2022. I think that’s a referendum on both the quality of this unit and how desultory it is in Ludwig’s offense, especially considering that Vele is younger than both Enis and Dixon.

They’ve also taken three mid 3-star recruits in the 2022 cycle — Tao Johnson, Sidney Mbanasor, and Chris Reed – but none will arrive until Fall and Greg doesn’t expect any will play. I agree and think the walk-on #85 WR Kudo, who was playing a lot in the Spring game, would be ahead of them.

NCAA Football: Utah at Southern California Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

In the running back unit Utah had a three-headed monster last year, with returners #9 RB Thomas getting over 1,000 yards and #2 RB Bernard over 500. The third back, TJ Pledger got about 700, and he’s since graduated. In my opinion, the ability to rotate between three guys was an important step for the Utes, since they’d been reliant on a single heavy-duty back in previous championship pushes and I think they ran into some fatigue and predictability issues.

There only look like two serious options to replace Pledger if Utah wants to keep a three-back rotation, and both are totally untested low 4-star freshmen: #6 RB Parks redshirted last year and #1 RB Glover was an early enrollee this cycle. I still haven’t seen much of Parks but Glover looked like a pretty promising thumper in the Spring game (though it was a pretty relaxed affair). We’ll have to wait for Fall camp to see if either are ready to play, and it’s tough to see them fully filling Pledger’s shoes immediately since he had played in 30 games at Oklahoma before transferring to Utah last season.

There’s only one other scholarship back in the room, #24 RB Curry who’d previously transferred from LSU, but his numbers are fairly poor and Greg was pretty negative about him ever really joining the rotation on the podcast. This being Utah, there are also seven walk-ons in the room, but we haven’t seen any of them yet and I doubt we will unless something dire happens.

The complicating factor is that Greg tells us Bernard has been practicing with the wide receivers and he’s expected to move over to the slot to try and replace Covey’s production as a possession receiver and on gadget plays. I still think he’ll get some carries but this situation is likely to be fluid as they test out how ready Parks and/or Glover are to play. The rosiest scenario for Utah is that they get a comparably productive three-back rotation from Thomas, Parks, and Glover, with Bernard fully taking on slot receiver duties. But other than Thomas everything else is an unknown here, and if one or two of those guys don’t work out right away they might have to scale back their plans simply for lack of talented, experienced bodies.

There are several parallels with the tight end unit compared to the running back room. The first is that Greg and I both believe getting a third tight end – last year’s FCS transfer #86 TE Kincaid — was really essential to Utah’s offensive taking a step forward, as longtime observers of OC Ludwig know that he really wants to field three receiving tight ends and struggles when he doesn’t have them. The second parallel is that they’re losing one of the experienced and productive guys in the unit, Cole Fotheringham, and the options to replace him are totally unproven. And third, they’ve moved one of the returning starters, #80 TE Kuithe, to practice with the wide receivers in a plan to split him out much more often and replace Covey’s role, including sweeps.

Those moves make it difficult to predict how, or even if, they’ll reproduce last year’s production at the unit through which much of the offense ran. Greg says he doesn’t expect Kuithe to be blocking much at all, and that alters both the rush and pass offense significantly. It was already the case Fotheringham’s replacement would have big shoes to fill in terms of being a great blocker and a real receiving threat, and if Kuithe is going to get split out then that’s an even bigger issue.

There are several prospects for the new guy and Greg tells us he’s not worried about one emerging, but it’s impossible to make a prediction who that’ll be right now. The only one who’s played in college is low 3-star former Juco #87 TE Yassmin, but I didn’t see him at all last year and apparently he got only two touches in garbage time. There are also a couple of Power-5 transfers, low 3-star #88 TE Morris from Syracuse and mid 3-star #4 TE McClain from USC, but neither have played in the combined five years they’ve been in college football. Rounding out the room are #35 TE Vaha, a mid 3-star redshirt freshman who sat out last year with a broken leg, mid 3-star #84 TE Ta. Pututau who hasn’t played in two years, and walk-on redshirt freshman #46 TE Erickson who was playing early in the Spring game. They’ve also taken an FCS transfer, Logan Kendall, but I believe he’s a fullback and not really in the mix for this spot.

Greg may be right to have faith that Utah will figure out their tight end situation (Kincaid, after all, was an unrated FCS player and now looks like a real NFL prospect), but given how green the options are here and the added stress of Kuithe splitting out, it’s a tough problem to solve. There’s a scenario where, after catching lightning in a bottle with three great TEs at once last year, Ludwig reverts to an OC that a lot of Utah fans wanted to see fired (as did Oregon, Cal, Wisconsin, and Vanderbilt fans).

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

Utah’s offensive line finally had a breakthrough last year, their best performance since 2016 (with the intervening years being somewhat disappointing; on the podcast Greg discussed fan frustration with OL coach Harding). I think this was the biggest single reason the Utes took a step forward in 2021.

The returning starters are #51 LG Bills, #78 RG Laumea, and #71 RT Daniels. The guards are both pretty solid (I like Laumea more than Bills, Greg has it the other way around), but Daniels is a puzzle to me. In previous seasons as a guard he graded out very poorly when I charted his games and I’d pretty much written him off, so when he switched to tackle I thought it was an impending disaster. But he had a lot fewer breakdowns on my tally sheet last year, and Greg was insistent that Daniels’ transformation was the single most essential part of the line’s improvement. I’m still not entirely sold on Daniels as a great tackle – I think he just went from bad to average – but the results speak for themselves and having a third solid returning starter is good news for the Utes.

The line loses the center Nick Ford and the left tackle Bamidele Olaseni. Those are the two most important positions generally, and in my opinion those two were crucial to this unit’s improvement – Ford’s versatility to play any position was vital because they didn’t have any other snapping options when 2019 center Orlando Umana left, and Olaseni has the ideal body for a tackle but his debut in 2019 was very poor so it was a great surprise that he really put it together last year.

I think the guard positions will continue to be solid because behind Bills and Laumea are a couple of backups who got significant reps in the past and looked decent - #53 OG Maea and #62 OG Mokofisi. But I think replacing the departures at center and tackle is going to be an adventure. Greg thinks the only candidate for center is #54 C Maile since he hasn’t heard anybody else mentioned as serious options. Maile played quite a few backup reps last year and sailed a whole lot of snaps over Rising’s head so I was shocked when Greg said he’ll probably be the new guy – I didn’t get to see Maile in the Spring game but the freshmen they had snapping clearly weren’t ready to play. The new tackle (either on the left, or if Daniels moves to the left then replacing him at right) will probably be #68 OT Kump – he played as a true freshman in 2020 when Harding had to switch out the line several times for covid reasons, but Kump has struggled with injuries his entire career and I’m not sure what his development has been like. He was also held out of the Spring game as far as I can tell.

The line had three guys transfer out who I think could have really helped this depth situation - Luke Felix-Fualalo, Simi Moala, and Marist Talavou, all of whom would have been going into their fourth or fifth year in the system had they stayed. As it is, they’re replacing two important starters with guys I have real questions about, and the experienced depth behind them at those positions is non-existent. The centers and tackles I saw in the Spring game were all freshmen and sophomores with no game reps and they were getting torn up by even the second-string defense. As Greg put it on the podcast: “Offensive line is my biggest worry going into the year … and I have no idea what to think of the guys behind them so if an injury happens, I’m not optimistic.”

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Utah at Ohio State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Utah employs a true 4-down linemen defense, one of the few in the Pac-12. It’s worth discussing the tackles and ends separately, since those units are coached separately and the personnel look to be in different shape for 2022.

The tackles lost two guys to graduation: one of the primary guys in the rotation, Hauti Pututau, and longtime backup Viane Moala who had a season-ending injury. They return the leading tackler of the unit in #58 DT Tafuna, plus three more who were in regular rotation with #90 DT Kaufusi, #95 DT Vimahi, and #99 DT T. Pututau (Hauti’s brother).

With the exception of Kaufusi who’s a couple years older and had earlier transferred in from BYU, the experienced returners came in with the 2020 class. After 2019 when almost the entire defensive line departed, those guys were thrown in the fire for the last two seasons and got a lot of reps early in their careers. Greg thinks the tackles should be at least as good as last year despite the losses, due to finally being upperclassmen. At any rate, they have the depth and experience to be successful, and there are four other returners in the room (plus a true freshman they’re getting in the fall) who didn’t play last year but look to be the right sizes for the job. So there are more bodies than they need at this unit and it shouldn’t be a problem at all.

The defensive ends may be another matter, however. There are six departures from this unit, including 2021 starter Mika Tafua and backup former 4-star Xavier Carlton, plus 2019 starter Maxs Tupai (I couldn’t tell if he was really on the team or not), Blake Kuithe (the younger brother of the tight end), and a couple of redshirt freshmen. They return the other 2020 4-star, #7 DE Fillinger, who’s living up to billing and should continue as a starter in 2022, but it’s hard to pick out the starter on the other side or who the backups will be.

Two more returners got some experience last year, #83 DE Elliss (son of the new DT coach) and #47 DE Suguturaga. They’re both mid 3-stars, but Elliss came in two years later and is 25 lbs lighter, yet still got substantially more reps than Suguturaga did last year – I think that’s an indication he’s ahead and when I pushed Greg to guess he went with Elliss as the new starter. The only other scholarship returner is #12 DE Wegis who didn’t play last year as a redshirt freshman; Suguturaga barely got off the bench so I have a hard time differentiating him from Wegis.

The rest of the room is pretty weird. The guy I saw getting the most reps in the Spring game was a walk-on redshirt freshman, #43 DE Aiono. I didn’t see the former wide receiver they’ve converted to the defense, #81 DE O’Toole, who’s currently listed at 210 lbs and drastically underweight for the role. I also didn’t see the transfer from Stanford, Gabe Reid, a player I’ve always liked as an outside backer in the Cardinal’s 3-down front but a body mismatch since he’s also way too small to be a DE in the Utes’ 4-down front (Greg and I had an interesting discussion on the podcast about Reid and Carlton both being poor body-type fits for this unit). Utah has taken two 2022 recruits who I believe will be ends, but they don’t arrive till the Fall and don’t have the size or talent rating for me to think they will break into the rotation right away.

So I think the four-man rotation they’ll use at end will be Fillinger, Ellis, Suguturaga, and then a mystery player to be determined in Fall camp but I don’t have high expectations of, simply because the options are so limited and there are real question marks for all of them. Greg said he wouldn’t be surprised at all if the walk-on freshman Aiono gets the last backup spot. Given the loss of two pretty talented DEs from last year’s rotation and what appears to be few good candidates to replace them and potentially some real depth issues, I expect the ends to take a step back in 2022.

NCAA Football: Utah at Southern California Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Utes lose both their starting linebackers from last year to the NFL, Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell. They also lose three more backers who were all pretty new to Utah (I suspect because this room has gotten too big for what’s usually a 4-2-5 defense and there are some promising new guys coming in), Jeremy Mercier, Trey Reynolds, and Carson Tabaracci.

They return #21 LB K. Reid, a low 3-star who walked on last year and became the third guy in the rotation as a true freshman; I thought he looked pretty good. They also return several other backups, including an unrated walk-on #54 LB Furey who was the fourth rotational backer. Nobody else got any substantial reps though, which is surprising considering some of the names here - #55 LB Mata’afa (cousin of Wazzu’s Hercules), brothers #10 LB E. Calvert and #34 LB J. Calvert who were both 4-stars, redshirt freshman 4-star #52 LB Fuaga, Wazzu transfer #46 LB Langi, and FCS transfer #82 LB Woods.

There are three intriguing newcomers to the unit: senior and former 4-star #9 LB Diabate who was Florida’s leading tackler last year, and the 4-star early enrollee freshmen #20 LB Barton and #6 LB Medlock who both played in the Spring game. Greg thinks that Reid will probably get to keep his spot but that Furey will be relegated to special teams due to his athletic limitations, and I agree. We both think that the new guys will probably jump all the other returners (it’s easy to infer from last year’s pecking order that the six scholarship returners not named Reid aren’t ready to play and may be busts). My guess is that the starters will be Diabate and Reid, with the freshmen Barton and Medlock as the backups. It’s tough to say that’s an improvement over last year because Lloyd and Sewell were so good and the 2021 backups had some experience, but it shouldn’t be a huge step back either.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The defensive backs lose several guys from a unit that had a number of injury (and possibly development) issues last year. The most significant are the safeties Brandon McKinney who’d previously transferred in from Washington and was the Utah secondary’s leading tackler, then Vonte Davis who was one tackle behind him. Kamo’i Latu has also transferred out after playing in the Spring game; both Greg and I think that departure hurts because he showed a lot of promise. Two cornerbacks who were 2019 recruits but got very little playing time the last three years have also transferred, Drew Rawls and LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson.

I think that Utah has two reliable and high quality defensive backs returning: #8 DB Bishop at strong safety and #1 CB Phillips at outside corner (though Greg thinks Phillips should be over the slot instead, something I’ve been saying for years). They may have a third good returner in #4 CB Broughton; Greg is pretty high on him but between the shortened 2020 season and his season-ending injury in 2021 I just haven’t gotten enough eyes on the subject and I’d be concerned about limited development time.

The rest of the returners didn’t really impress me last year, and I think Greg basically agrees although he noted on the podcast that a few guys were playing out of position and may look better if they were in the proper spots. I think #15 CB Mataele, #23 CB Marks, and #16 DB Vaughn will probably get spots in the rotation next year; I thought they were all coverage liabilities and I think it was telling for the rest of the room that the unrated walk-on Vaughn was being forced to switch to corner after some injury problems. Or as Greg put it regarding the replacement corner in the Rose Bowl, “the fact that Utah went to a running back before they went to [the other DBs] I feel like says a lot …”

There are five other scholarship defensive backs in the room but they got basically zero playing time last year and for the above reasons I don’t think they’re going to make much noise on the depth chart. Greg thinks it’s more likely that we see a promising true freshman, mid 3-star Jocelyn Malaska, and an unrated FCS transfer, Clayton Isbell, though neither was available for Spring practices. In my opinion, the entire secondary has maybe five playable guys, two of whom I think are very good but the rest are kind of question marks. I’d be very worried about depth here, especially given the past injury history.


Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview, I pointed out that Brewer seemed like a poor fit for Ludwig’s offense and my suspicions that Rising would get the starting job back as soon as his health allowed, which is exactly what happened. I wrote that with as many good backs transferring in and little in terms of returning production, we’d see a committee approach, which did basically happen although it was clear that Thomas took over. He transferred in after Spring ball and after we recorded our podcast interview so I was a little blindsided there, but I noted that his yards per carry average was the best of the incoming guys so that was a predictable outcome. I got the three starting tight ends exactly correct, including figuring out Kincaid’s role from film study. The wide receiver room went just as described, including Vele as a breakout despite being a walk-on. For the offensive line, I got the guards and center exactly correct (which wasn’t that easy considering the line changed multiple times the year before), but I whiffed badly on the tackles. I had Olaseni listed as a backup but was skeptical he’d even live up to his ideal proportions, and I really didn’t see Daniels switching from guard to tackle and getting out of the doghouse. I don’t know how I could have predicted those things and frankly even with the benefit of hindsight I’m still baffled how they happened, so I’m not sure what lesson to learn here. Still, I expected the line to improve simply from the relative stability and they definitely did that.

I got three of the four guys in the defensive tackle rotation correct, and one of the misses was due to a Fall injury, but I absolutely didn’t see Tafuna coming – he didn’t play at all previously and completely took over the inside of the line as a redshirt freshman. Similar story with the ends, three of four correct and the miss was a longtime player suddenly departing from the team after I published my article. Unlike the tackles, however, they didn’t find a new guy out of nowhere to take over in a four-man rotation but rather played three primary guys and then sporadic backups, which I think presaged some of the issues I see coming in 2022. I got the starting linebackers right, it would have been hard to miss there, but I took a pass on predicting the backups because it was a bunch of very unproven and somewhat unappealing prospects – the fact that two walk-ons wound up getting the second-string reps I think bore that out. I got the entire starting secondary correct except I didn’t know McKinney was transferring in, but I did get the prediction that the true freshman Bishop would start. Injuries in the unit forced some backups into action every one of the ones I mentioned then saw the field for substantial minutes.

Syndication: Phoenix Rob Schumacher/The Republic