Dallas • Back-to-back wins to finish the season and the wealth of underclassmen set to return next season give the Utes ample optimism this coming offseason.
Closing wins over Colorado and West Virginia don’t completely change the view of the Utah football season, but those victories did give Utah a winning record (7-6) and certainly tempered any lingering frustration or disappointment from a stretch of six losses in seven games prior to the regular-season finale.
Those final two wins also send the senior class — a group which Utes coach Kyle Whittingham has repeatedly credited for solidifying the program’s footing in the Pac-12 Conference — out on a winning note. And the victories send the returning players into the offseason with a sense of confidence about what they might accomplish next season.
Utes sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley didn’t frame Tuesday’s 30-14 win over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl as a season-ending win. He talked about it as a starting point for the 2018 season, which won’t officially start until a little more than eight months.
“It felt amazing just to get a good win, just to start the year off right and start preparing for next year,” Huntley said.
Huntley, a sophomore signal-caller, entered this season with no starts under his belt, no game experience in offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s offensive system and no true reference point for the physical abuse he’d take as a running quarterback in the Pac-12 Conference.
“It was almost like three steps forward, one step back with the injuries,” Whittingham said. “We’d start to progress and then he’d get hurt and have to regroup and then come back again. I think the biggest thing for Tyler this offseason is to put on about 20 pounds, 15 or 20 pounds. He has to because his style of play — he loves to run the football — you can’t get it done at 185 pounds and stay healthy.”
Huntley’s inexperience hardly set him apart on this year’s edition of the Utes. The heartbeat of the offense came from a reconstructed offensive line that featured four first-year starters. Zack Moss stepped into the role of the featured running back in a program known for its rough and rugged offenses built for mauling opponents at the line of scrimmage.
Moss capped off his first full season as the starter with 150 yards to push his season total to 1,173 on 214 carries. Despite Huntley missing three starts due to injuries, the Utes offense finished the regular season ranked higher in the Pac-12 in both passing yards per game and pass efficiency than any other year since joining the conference in 2011.
“This team, I think it’s going to mature,” Moss said. “Get ready for 2018. I think it’ll be real scary.”
Similarly to the offensive line, the backbone of the defense — the secondary — underwent a massive overhaul with three starters gone from the previous season. Julian Blackmon put a bow on his all-conference performance this season with an MVP performance in the bowl game. He is quickly becoming a leader among a young defensive back unit.
Of the 22 starters on offense and defense in the Utes’ bowl game, 14 were underclassmen, as are punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay. The Utes still expect senior center Lo Falemaka to receive an additional year of eligibility. Strong safety Chase Hansen, who did not play on Tuesday, could also return for his senior season. Hansen said following Tuesday’s game that he was still in the process of deciding whether he would return next season or enter the NFL Draft.
“We feel like we’ve got a good nucleus coming back,” Whittingham said. “We are losing a good group of seniors, a lot of talent in that group. I’m sure we’ll be watching a lot of them play on Sundays in the upcoming future, but we think we’ve got a good group coming back. We’ll see how hard they work and what kind of leadership we can generate.”