Utah returns almost all of the key personnel from what was the 20th ranked offense in F+ advanced statistics last year, and I expect few changes if any in the fifth season of OC Ludwig’s second stint in Salt Lake City. This offense has been fairly straightforward to study over the years, and I’ve published several film review articles documenting how it’s highly predictable based on formation, constrained by a narrow list of passing options, and overly reliant on QB running and improvisation, and for those reasons a few teams who do their film study have stopped it dead in its tracks … but only a few teams. Mostly it plows right over the fragile and underprepared defenses in this league, and I expect to see the same in 2023.
One interesting phenomenon that came up from charting Utah’s 2022 season is how slow they started games but then built unstoppable momentum for most of the season: their per-play success rates in the 1st quarter of all games was below water at only 48% (97 successes vs 104 failures, given the down & distance, excluding garbage time), but jumped an incredible 10 percentage points to 58% in the 2nd quarter. But there’s a split in 3rd quarter effectiveness: for the first 10 games of the season they took another jump to an astonishing 64% 3rd quarter success rate, but in the final four games they tumbled back down to 47% in the 3rd quarter, worse even than their 1st quarter slow starts.
I have a few different ideas for why that might be, but when I brought it up with Greg on the podcast, he offered my preferred theory unprompted: Ludwig’s opening scripted drives are ineffective, the offense is dependent on certain bread-and-butter plays and improvisation instead, and returning starter #7 QB Rising’s health is absolutely imperative to bail them out.
Rising is the ideal fit for Ludwig’s playcalling aptitude, both operating within the offense’s structure with its tight end-dominated passing tree and frequent QB power runs, and outside of it with frequent drive-saving scrambles and other improvised plays. But the high physical demands the offense places on him have unfortunately resulted in injuries cutting short every one of his three seasons as starter so far, and the non-trivial risk of another such injury is the most likely reason this offense wouldn’t meet expectations. There’s a possibility Rising won’t be ready for week 1, since he suffered an ACL tear in the Rose Bowl and his surgery was in mid-January.
The backup situation is complicated and will likely last through the Fall, possibly up until whatever point in the season a replacement might be needed. Rising’s primary backup has been former walk-on #16 QB Barnes, who has the remarkable distinction of turning Utah’s final snap of two consecutive seasons into a touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl. Barnes returns in 2023 and I’ve always thought of him as a competent game manager; Greg about took my head off on the podcast for expressing approval, but we agree that a game manager simply isn’t enough in a Ludwig offense or with the rest of this talent environment – for Utah to win games against halfway decent opponents requires a QB with a bigger arm and more athleticism than Barnes has.
The most interesting news Greg shared is that Whittingham said mid 3-star redshirt freshman #8 QB Rose has significantly separated himself from Barnes and the other options in Spring practices, and is currently the primary backup. Greg says Rose has the best arm of the bunch, but it took him longer to get up to speed in the college game and that he played at a lower level in high school. He would need to have a lot of arm talent to distance himself from Barnes since the experience gap is so wide — he hasn’t played at all and I have a hard time understanding the difficulty in picking up Ludwig’s blood-simple playbook — and from watching Rose in the Spring game I agree with Greg’s assessment that he doesn’t bring anything more athletically than Barnes does. As Greg put it on the podcast, “Rose was lower rated for a reason, and you need to be more than a pocket passer in an Andy Ludwig offense.”
In my opinion, the best shot that Utah has at replicating everything Rising does for Ludwig’s offense — if the need arises in 2023 and as a future starter in 2024 — is developing #13 QB N. Johnson’s skillset. He’s also a 2022 recruit and a redshirt freshman, but was a low 4-star and played in four games last year (some garbage time reps and a few specialty plays). Johnson is an exceptional athlete and boasts the best 100m time of any FBS QB recruit who ran track, though it should be said that rushing in pads and improvising scramble plays are about a lot more than straight-line speed. But Johnson was injured for much of Spring practices and appears to be significantly behind in running the offense – I don’t generally take too much away from Spring game performances but his was alarmingly poor, with his very first throw being a bad pick and the rest of it not much better. As Greg put it, “I don’t know that Utah trusts him that much” regarding decision-making in the pocket.
The final backup is mid 3-star true freshman #9 QB Howard, I saw him at the very end of the Spring game throwing an interception; Greg’s very down on him and I agree he’s not a serious option. I also spotted former Juco Luke Bottari in Spring but he’s since transferred out. There are no other QBs on the roster or incoming.
If the best aspects of the three main options could be combined – Barnes’ game management experience, Rose’s arm, Johnson’s athleticism – then you could begin to approach the complete package that Rising brings and in my opinion is absolutely necessary to make this offense functional. But to me it looks like all the options have at least one serious drawback not just compared to Rising but compared to each other. That makes it difficult to say definitively who would actually go in if Rising is unavailable, but straightforward to predict that the offense would suffer a big dropoff for it.
By contrast the running back room looks absolutely loaded, despite the loss of their leading ballcarrier Tavion Thomas; he’d missed a few games last season and faces ongoing criminal charges. Utah hardly missed him with the other three backs in the rotation who all return: #2 RB Bernard, #3 RB Jackson, and #1 RB Glover.
As the most experienced and accomplished all-purpose back, including virtually all receptions out of the backfield, I expect Bernard to be the one who gets the most touches in 2023. Greg differed and thinks that’ll be Jackson, a converted QB with an unorthodox running style (he’s pretty tall for a back at 6’2”); I agree that Jackson’s great in the open field and wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up with more total yards due to breaking some explosive runs from making second-level defenders miss, but I think it’s weird they don’t trust him to run receiving routes and he still lags Bernard technically when hitting the hole properly as a traditional back. Glover is much lower to the ground at 5’7” and I expect will continue to be used for power and short-yardage situations; he did pretty well as a true freshman last year.
Rounding out the returners are #24 RB Curry, a former 4-star transfer from LSU who’s never really done much and I expect that to continue, and #26 RB Vincent, a former walk-on who played in every game last year in cleanup duty. They’ve added three highly recruited backs in the 2023 cycle, all borderline 4-stars, but none arrive until the Fall. Given the talent and experience ahead of them I think they’ll all probably redshirt, but we could see them take some garbage time reps or be used as depth in an emergency.
Utah’s top tight end, Dalton Kincaid, was drafted in the 1st round by the Bills. He got 70 catches last year and was one of two guys Rising was comfortable throwing the ball to after they lost #80 TE Kuithe early in the season to injury. The other departures from the room include FCS transfer Logan Kendall, Syracuse transfer Landon Morris, and 2020 recruit Taniela Pututau.
Kuithe returns after tearing his ACL four games into last season and missing the rest of the year; he was still sidelined during Spring but should be ready to go in the Fall. Kuithe has been a dominant player since his true freshman year in 2018; in the past I’ve described him as the best tight end in the league, and with his connection with Rising in the structure of Ludwig’s offense I expect a huge amount of the offense to run through him.
After that it becomes a little tricky to describe the tight end room. I’m sure that returner #87 TE Yassmin will play a prominent role in it since he was the second-leading guy in Kuithe’s absence last year. But I’ve never felt his film was as impressive as his statistical production, and I thought it was noteworthy that even playing nine more games than Kuithe did he still had six fewer receptions at the end of the year. I ran this conflict past Greg and asked if he thought I was nuts; he said not at all, rather “there’s a very clear tier drop with Yassmin” compared to Kuithe and Kincaid in terms of his connection with Rising, and also that his hands aren’t as good and he has some fumble issues. But Greg noted that Yassmin has improved a lot and has showed it in flashes, and is a hard TE to bring down.
The other two other scholarship returners are USC transfer #4 TE McClain and #35 TE Vaha. Both are mid-to-high 3-stars and have been in the program for at least a couple years with ample opportunities to have played given Ludwig’s preference for 3-TE sets, but they’ve basically never seen the field. Instead those opportunities have gone to a series of unrated FCS and D2 transfers like Kendall and Kincaid. Greg says he’s not expecting anything out of those guys in 2023 and I have to agree; I’d think it’s more likely that the walk-ons we saw in the Spring game, #89 TE Bennee or #46 TE Erickson, get more playing time than they do. Interestingly #47 TE Suguturaga has been converted from a defensive end; some tractable articles in allied media suggest he’s more needed in this room and the DEs have a logjam but it’s pretty clear to me it’s the other way around so I have no idea what his prospects are for play.
Given that status of the tight end room and Ludwig’s need for lots of playable guys here, Greg and I thought it was likely that they’d try to land another one from the portal, which happened literally while we were talking about it during the podcast recording – Auburn transfer Landen King. He was a mid 3-star in the 2021 class who’s gotten six catches in the last two seasons. They’ll also add a similarly rated true freshman in the Fall.
Utah returns their top wide receiver, #17 WR Vele, who had 55 receptions last year and was the other guy Rising was comfortable throwing the ball to. I certainly think Vele is a high quality receiver and a real weapon for the Utes, but it’s difficult to describe his talent in objective terms - he was often the only viable wideout Utah would put on the field, in an offense that finds the position desultory, with a QB who as Greg puts it “has tunnel vision” for just one receiver at a time, and was unrated out of high school (which is a spectacular failure by the scouting services, he was a 6’5” player from San Diego, hard to miss). Defenses were well advised to devote extra resources to covering Vele; from film study I can say that four teams did so and all four effectively shut down his production, though it was an odd group – two were losses for the Utes (Florida and Oregon) but the other two were not DCs I would have expected it out of at all (Wazzu and Colorado).
They’re also returning their second leading receiver, #10 WR M. Parks, a shorter slot guy who was also used on sweeps … though this offense doesn’t really care about traditional inside-outside distinctions for the receivers and will put wideouts just about anywhere on the field, including Parks playing at Z during the Spring game. The third and fourth guys have graduated, longtime players Jaylen Dixon and Solomon Enis, who were recruited before Ludwig’s return to Utah and never really used much in his offense.
Utah returns two more scholarship receivers, #11 WR Cope and #12 WR Mbanasor, who didn’t play much last year but were still freshmen, and had two other scholarship guys, Chris Reed and Tiquan Gilmore, playing in the Spring game, but the latter two transferred out immediately afterwards. Greg says the word around the program is the staff wasn’t really happy with any of those four and I suppose that makes sense from their basically non-existent production numbers and how active the Utes have been bringing in new receivers, though I tend to think the offense itself plays a role and I wonder how effective they’d be with any other OC.
There are three new wideouts in the 2023 recruiting cycle: two mid 3-stars who enroll in the Fall I don’t really think will see the field and low 4-star #0 WR Matthews who enrolled early and played in the Spring game. Greg says the staff likes Matthews a lot and I could see him making the field this season, at 6’0” he could play at a variety of spots.
So far in the portal Utah has taken Emery Simmons, who started out at UNC in 2019 then transferred to Indiana and I’d describe as a possession receiver but wasn’t available for Spring, #29 WR F. Jacobsen who’s an unrated transfer from Utah St and I think a walk-on but was playing in the Spring game, and Mycah Pittman from Florida St and Oregon before that who’s out for several months with hip surgery, I suspect late enough into the Fall that it’ll probably be wiser to take a medical redshirt. Greg says the Utes have been connected with another possible portal addition, Trejan Bridges, a former 5-star who left Oklahoma with criminal charges still pending and most recently played Juco ball; the case has a status conference in August.
I think that the turnover in the wide receiver unit is interesting to track, but ‘Utes Just Need One More Wideout’ is a perennial headline in the Salt Lake City sports pages. In my opinion as long as Ludwig is in the booth, and Rising and Vele are on the field, it doesn’t really matter who else is coming and going from the room.
Utah loses two of their offensive line starters from last season: left tackle Braeden Daniels was drafted in the 4th round by the Commanders and center Paul Maile transferred to BYU. They also lose a couple of guys who didn’t play last year but might have figured into the backup situation, Hunter Lotulelei and Tyler Knaak.
Longtime OL coach Harding surprised me for the second straight year with a guard-tackle flip, this time with #78 RT Laumea at tackle after playing his first couple of years at right guard (impressively for a freshman, in my opinion), and starting #68 RG Kump inside after a somewhat fitful debut at tackle. Kump rotated with #52 RG Mokofisi at the position during the season, including swapping out midway through the loss to UCLA, though neither graded out very well on my tally sheet. Greg thinks Kump will go back to RT for 2023, with Laumea moving over to LT to replace Daniels, and Mokofisi keeping the RG job fulltime; that seems like the best use of their experience to me though I’m still not sold on Kump as a tackle.
After a real free-for-all for LG in 2021 in which he got about a third of the snaps, it seems like #51 LG Bills has the position locked down as he got virtually all of them in 2022 and looks to return to the spot in 2023. Maile was injured during the season and his first backup in was #53 C Maea, he’ll probably get the starting job now.
There are six other scholarship returners in the room for depth: #61 OL Faaiu, #79 OL Harrison, #59 OL Kaumatule, #74 OL Olson, #73 OL Togiai, and #76 OL Williams. I believe only Faaiu has seen the field, a little while replacing Maea at center when he in turn got hurt; it went pretty poorly but it was a small sample. I’m not sure who of this group they’d turn to as their sixth man given that experience, this wasn’t a particularly highly rated group as a bunch of mid 3-stars with an average 24/7 composite rating of .8566, and given the specialized skill of snapping the ball it’s possible Faaiu jumped the queue. If a tackle gets hurt they might go with Kaumatule – he was playing LT in the Spring game, has the best frame for it, and is the oldest of the group, though he’s also the lowest rated.
The intriguing thing about this room is what the freshmen might do, though probably not until future seasons. Two were highly coveted bluechip recruiting coups, Spencer Fano and Caleb Lomu, and the other two, Roger Alderman and Solatoa Moeai, are high 3-stars and still much higher rated than the typical recruits Harding has been bringing in for the last decade. Fano enrolled early and we got to see him in the Spring game, though as Greg pointed out he probably needs to redshirt and bulk up a bit before we see him take the field in 2024.
On the podcast Greg declared he’s switched from a Harding hater to a stan. I remain as indifferent as I always have; in the past it’s been apparent that offensive line talent and technique deficiencies have doomed this offense against better defenses as Utah has stepped up the level of competition, and in 2022 this unit graded out with error rates in the mid-teens across the board on my tally sheet as Utah’s o-lines almost always do. That placed it solidly in the upper-middle of the Pac-12 where line play doesn’t appear to be a priority, but I watch other Power-5 leagues. I expect something similar in 2023 – I think the right side will be a little shakier than the left, and they’ll find a journeyman replacement for a sadly inevitable unavailability at some point with adequate if unremarkable scholarship depth – which should be good enough to run this offense as well as it has in recent years but not hit the level that the bluechip talents may elevate them to in the future. If and when that happens it’ll be time to re-evaluate Harding; this year looks like more of the same.
Utah finished the 2022 season with the 26th ranked defense in F+, although for most of the season they hovered around 38-42 and didn’t make the jump into the 20s until a late boost when they held top offenses Oregon and USC to 20 and 24 points, respectively, and in both games they faced injured quarterbacks. Still, the conference championship game in particular featured a dominant performance by the defensive line, regardless of the QB’s inability to escape from it, which the Utes should still get full credit for and points up the biggest returning strength of the 2023 squad.
I charted all of Utah’s games last year, and my tally sheet paints something of a complex picture. Pass defense efficiency was a strength at a 55% success rate (188 successes vs 154 failures), about the same as the year before, however explosive passing defense wasn’t, giving up 8.5 adjusted YPA and more than 19.5% of attempts gaining 15+ yards, which was a real falloff from 2021. There were two changes I noticed over the course of the season in pass defense: first is that their successful pressure rate when rushing only four had dropped precipitously compared to the year prior, second is that by midseason they adjusted by blitzing a lot more and cleaned a couple teams’ clocks doing so (I would argue they did it to USC twice, in the second half of their regular season game and throughout the CCG). In the latter part of the season that made them a deadly defense on longer-yardage situations – after the bye week the Utes’ combined 2nd & long, 3rd & medium, and 3rd & long success rate climbed to over 68%.
Rush defense was less complicated, however. Better performances at the end of the year pulled up their numbers a bit from the last time I wrote about them, but they still finished with a 47% success rate against the run (105 vs 119), giving up 5.6 adjusted YPC and 18.3% of designed rushes gaining 10+ yards. (Utah was a very effective defense at bringing down QB scrambles and remaining defensively consistent in garbage time and so their raw stats show a better rush defense, but charting cuts through these distortions.) There’s a real down & distance and drive position effectiveness disparity as well, with fairly effective opening play and 1st & 10 rush win rates, but abysmal performances below 27% on 2nd or 3rd & short. In my opinion, Utah’s offense bailed their rush defense out quite a bit, forcing opponents to abandon the run and throw the ball at a 3:2 rate even before garbage time set in; if opposing offenses had more discipline to simply run the ball at this defense (as UCLA did) they might have enjoyed better outcomes.
The defensive ends are losing their most disruptive player, Gabe Reid, who’d transferred in after starting the previous four years at Stanford (as an OLB in a 3-4 system, good for him for adapting), as well as a 2020 recruit who got a couple backup reps, Tyler Wegis. They return the three other guys in the rotation: the other starter #81 DE O’Toole (a converted WR, of all things, who’s bulked up to 245 lbs), and the two primary backups #83 DE Elliss and #7 DE Fillinger. There are two other scholarship returners, #56 DE Akana and #13 DE Kennedy; both were mid 3-stars in the previous recruiting cycle and redshirted last year.
Utah is getting two additions to the DE unit: Logan Fano (Spencer’s older brother), a low 4-star who enrolled at BYU last year but missed the season with an injury and then hit the portal, and Jonah Leaea, a mid 3-star 2023 recruit. I didn’t see either in Spring but Greg says both will be ready for Fall.
There’s a net gain in depth here and I expect the standard incremental improvement from the three returning rotational players, but it’s hard to predict much more than holding steady in this unit compared to last year. Fano’s talent rating is a plus but it’s never been tested on the field; the loss of Reid’s half-decade of starting experience and production is significant and sight-unseen I can’t just project Fano to instantly replicate it. I’m also concerned that I’ve never gotten a coherent explanation for former 4-star Fillinger’s big falloff in production from 2021 to 2022 or why he fell behind lower rated players and positional converts – he suffered a season-ending injury in November but his place on the two-deep had shifted well before that.
There was a curious lack of rotation among the defensive tackles last year, and both Greg and I think that contributed to certain fatigue problems that were evident in the rush defense. Despite the fact that on paper this unit will be shrinking from eight scholarship players in 2022 to six in 2023, there’s reason to believe that this problem will ease up a bit.
The two tackles who got the lion’s share of the reps were returners #58 DT Tafuna and #95 Vimahi. The third tackle who’d sub in for limited reps every game is returner #77 DT Pepa, he’s enormous and graded out much better on my tally sheet, but according to Utah’s website enrolled at close to 360 lbs and Greg says he’s been on a project to get down to a weight where he can play more regularly (Pepa’s currently listed at 330 lbs but that number hasn’t been updated since February).
Two other scholarship tackles return: #57 DT K. Tanuvasa was a mid 3-star true freshman who played in four games last year to preserve his redshirt and still needs to bulk up a bit by the standards of this line; #94 DT T. Fotu is a mid 3-star Juco who joined the team in 2021 but hasn’t played the last two years.
The three departures are Devin Kaufusi, Fua Pututau, and Tennessee Pututau (for readers keeping track, that means all four Pututau brothers who were on the roster together in 2021 have now left the team). However, those departures barely saw the field and had only a handful of tackles combined. They’re adding a mid 3-star true freshman in the Fall.
Returning all their actual producers is great news for the Utes, and I’d certainly be looking forward to their best DT (on a per-play basis) seeing the field more often. The departures don’t hurt this unit’s productivity at all, and I’ll give good odds to Tanuvasa joining the rotation as a playable redshirt freshman backup to ease the fatigue problem. But I’m skeptical about projecting anything more than that – Fotu is way overdue to have played, a modestly talented Fall enrollee is unlikely to be an immediate impact DT, and there are so few bodies in the room that they have to make a bet on a single player working out (and everyone staying healthy) just to avoid a repeat of last year’s problems. These are classic depth issues and I’m a little confused why Utah hasn’t recruited more guys here.
Utah has been using a two-backer system with a third primary guy in rotation for the last several seasons, though in 2022 it was closer to an even mix than it has been in the past. Last year those three were #20 LB Barton, a mid 4-star true freshman who got the fewest reps but only by a little bit, #21 LB K. Reid (Gabe’s younger brother), a low 3-star who enrolled in 2021, and Mohamoud Diabate, a mid 4-star transfer from Florida who declared for the NFL and signed a UDFA with the Browns (though as an edge, which is probably a better fit for his skillset since he was out of position a lot as an overly aggressive backer).
There are four transfers out of the program who didn’t really play and it seems didn’t pan out despite high hopes: Ethan Calvert, Lolani Langi, Andrew Mata’afa, and Mason Tufaga. Three of those were 2021 guys and two were 4-stars.
It’s not difficult to pencil in Barton and Reid as the 2023 starters. Greg likes Barton a lot, he didn’t grade out great for me but he was pretty young and his size at 6’4” is impressive. Reid however graded out very poorly and I have a tough time finding much positive press for him in Utah media. His experience as the leading returning tackler in the room by a wide margin will make him hard to supplant, though.
There are a seven options for that typical third rotational spot — or maybe an outside chance of displacing Reid — and they all have pretty different backstories. Senior and former walk-on #54 LB Furey has the most experience of the remaining returners and played 12 games last year. #6 LB Medlock is a high 3-star redshirt freshman whom Greg says the staff loves. #14 LB J. Calvert was a 4-star transfer from UW who’s never really played, I’m not a believer but he is the highest rated of the bunch. Sione Fotu enrolled in 2020 and played in that abbreviated season, halfway decently as a true freshman under the circumstances in my opinion, then left on an LDS mission but is now back on the team. Levani Damuni transferred in from Stanford, he has the most experience of anyone although I think he’s played fairly poorly over all that time. #11 LB Chambliss is a high 3-star early enrollee, and there’s a mid 3-star joining in the Fall.
That’s a lot of depth and I’m sure Utah will find someone playable out of the bunch, though search me who it’ll be as everybody has an obvious drawback. On the podcast Greg and I spent some time discussing LB coach Swan’s tenure with the Utes (this will be his fifth year, so a relative newcomer to this long-tenured defensive staff); I think it’s notable how many highly rated backers have washed out of this unit and that the best products haven’t been his recruits but rather converted safeties, something that may not be an option this year.
Utah plays a box safety which is close to being a third linebacker, and that job is overflowing with great players for 2023. What’s astonishing is that for three straight seasons they’ve seen a true freshman make a great debut at the same position. The starter for the last two seasons has been #8 DB Bishop, who enrolled in 2021. His backup starting last year has been #28 DB Vaki. Before them, low 4-star #6 DB Ritchie enrolled in 2020 and (like the linebacker Fotu) played well in that shortened season, then left on a mission and has now returned to the team.
I’m not sure how Utah will resolve this logjam. I really like all three players but they can’t use them all at the same spot. One possibility that Greg brought up on the podcast, which is hardly far-fetched because Utah has done it so often in the past, is to move one of them over to linebacker … and per the above discussion I would instantly like such a move better than any of their other options at that spot. The issue with that would be I’m not sure it leaves them enough depth to fill out the other deep safety spots.
There are several departures from the safety room. Longtime player RJ Hubert has graduated, and Clayton Isbell and Jadon Pearson who played last year have transferred out. One of the walk-ons I saw playing in the Spring game, Malae Tanuvasa, has since disappeared from the official roster. I’m not sure if this counts as a departure, but 2021 mid 3-star #24 DB Stewart, who hasn’t yet seen the field in live ball but is listed as a safety, was playing as an outside cornerback in the Spring game.
Besides Bishop, Vaki, and Stewart (if he still is a safety), the only returning scholarship safety is #19 DB Reeves, a low 3-star who’s only gotten a handful of reps since enrolling in 2021, but I didn’t see him in the Spring game. The other three deep safeties playing in Spring ball were two more walk-ons, #38 DB Nowatzke and #18 DB Viehweg (both of whom had their names misspelled on their jerseys), and a true freshman mid 3-star, #10 DB Hall. They’ll add a high 3-star, Brock Fonoimoana, in the Fall.
On the podcast, Greg thought the most likely solution was keeping Bishop at the box safety job, sliding Ritchie back to free safety, and trying Vaki out at the other deep safety spot. I was a little skeptical that would work, and so it made a lot of sense after we recorded that Utah landed former USC safety Briton Allen through the portal. He was a borderline 4-star from the 2019 class who played sparingly his first two seasons and has had to deal with multiple injuries (neck, wrist, ACL) that have really derailed his career and kept him from seeing the field at all the last two seasons. If he can stay healthy and live up to his talent rating, it would solve a lot of potential problems here – Ritchie and Allen deep, Bishop in the box, Vaki converts to backer. They wouldn’t have any depth behind them at all and it requires Allen playing for the first time ever, but as a starting group that’s a lot more potential than last year’s setup. But if it doesn’t work out with Allen or someone else taking on a new job, or if a significant injury strikes this group, they could be in a lot of trouble.
Utah loses one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Clark Phillips, who was drafted in the 4th round by the Falcons (later than I would have guessed, actually). A couple backups who played last year have transferred out, Malone Mataele and Caine Savage, while Elisha Lloyd has retired from football to run track, and one of the walk-ons I saw in the Spring game playing corner, Tiloi Nawahine, has since disappeared from the roster.
The corners return the starter who played opposite Phillips, #4 CB Broughton, and the most used backup, #16 CB Vaughn. Broughton got absolutely shelled on my tally sheet, but I cut him a lot of slack because he was across from a lockdown corner and the quarterbacks in this league are going to pick on somebody. Greg is a bigger fan of Vaughn than I am; he’s a former walk-on who got thrown in the fire due to some injuries a couple years ago and performed better than Greg thought he would, I appreciate that perspective but the film is pretty clear on his athletic ceiling.
I’m not sure what to think of the five other scholarship returners. Three were mid 3-stars in the last cycle who redshirted, #9 CB Davis, #15 CB T. Johnson, and #33 CB Malaska (Johnson was listed as a wideout in 2022). The other two came in as low 3-stars in the 2020 cycle, #2 CB Lawler and #23 CB Marks. I’ve never seen Lawler at all; Marks got a decent amount of play in 2021 before he got hurt late that year, was reportedly fully healthy in 2022, but then never really saw the field again. I think it’s odd that of those five I only saw Davis playing in the Spring game, and that they had Stewart switch over from safety instead.
In that environment, I have no difficulty believing that the incoming players will probably jump the returners on the two-deep. They brought in #1 CB Battle from Ole Miss pretty clearly to be the new starter opposite Broughton; he was a low 4-star wideout in the 2018 class but switched to the secondary in 2020, then became a starting corner for the Rebels in 2022. That was the season I charted when reviewing Oregon transfer Tysheem Johnson’s tape, and Battle struck me as obviously athletic but had some clear technical breakdowns with his hips and alignment to the sideline, and it made sense to me that 24/7’s rating of him as a transfer CB was lower than as a prep WR prospect. The Utes have two low 4-stars joining in the Fall, CJ Blocker and Smith Snowden; corner is such an experience-driven unit that I wouldn’t expect them to start, but their talent is so much more promising than the returners’ that I also wouldn’t be surprised if they’re put in early to get some developmental time.
On the podcast, Greg and I talked about how this secondary has a narrow path to work out well, and the confidence that longtime DB coach Shah has earned. It doesn’t look like a repeat of the 2019 backfield which all got drafted, and I don’t think there’s another Clark Phillips here either, though there are enough good players that with some good injury luck they should be fine. As Greg put it, “my optimism is that it won’t be a disaster, not that it’ll be an elite unit.”
Last year’s preview identified the inevitable quarterback replacement situation and that Jackson wouldn’t be up for it, ultimately correctly landing on Barnes. The WRs, RBs, and TEs that I thought wouldn’t be contributors were all accurate picks, and the general proposition that that left — Utah didn’t have enough playable skill talent and would need to shuffle some guys around to different positions – did prove prescient. I thought it would be a running back to the wide receiver room and a tight end taking up Covey’s Swiss army knife role, and instead it was Jackson converting to a RB so they didn’t have a viable backup QB (!) and leaving the WR room basically empty of all but one playable guy (!!). That’s a different zany and ultimately self-destructive solution to their skill depth problem than I proposed, but I got the shape of the problem, and the fact that it’d be zany and self-destructive, dead right. I got the line starters all correct, as well as both backups who played, though as noted in the article I was surprised by the tackle-guard flip, and I was also surprised that Maile graded out the best of the line at center given that he was snapping the ball over the QB’s head the last time I’d seen him.
Defensively, I got the DTs all correct nominally, though I didn’t predict the Kaufusi’s disappearance or Pepa stepping up. I thought the DE situation would be weird but I didn’t think it would be this weird – Fillinger stepped way back, Suguturaga left the room, O’Toole went from a wideout to a starter, and Reid successfully pulled off what basically no one does, which is going from a 3-down to a 4-down front effectively. The prediction of Diabate, Barton, and the younger Reid as backers was dead on, despite having to sift through a big list of candidates to get it, though I thought Diabate and Reid would be better. The predictions in the secondary were all accurate.