Since the end of the regular season, seemingly most of the Pac-12 has been in a state of flux with coaching changes and key players leaving early for the NFL Draft.
While Utah’s roster will certainly have holes to fill with a senior class moving on, the program also appears poised to bring back a good deal of its core intact. The Utes should also have more depth to draw from than this last year when entire units on both sides of the ball had to be revamped due to loss to graduation and the NFL.
The Utes are slated to return 14 of the 22 offensive and defensive starters from their Heart of Dallas Bowl victory. That does not include injured starters who did not play in the bowl game. As of last week, strong safety Chase Hansen was the only underclassmen considering early entry into the NFL Draft. He has until January 15 to declare.
Here’s a breakdown of where things stand at each position group looking ahead to spring practices:
The expectations are that Tyler Huntley should become more comfortable, confident in command of the offense after a season as the starter in Troy Taylor’s system. At his best, he completes a high percentage of his passes and also puts pressure on the defense with his legs (294.8 yards total offense per game). He must put on weight if he’s going to continue to carry the ball as often as he did this season (168 in 10 games).
Freshman Jason Shelley preserved his redshirt season and served as a scout team quarterback. Next season, he’ll aim to move up the depth chart. Incoming quarterback Jack Tuttle was one of the top high school quarterbacks in his class, and should make the quarterback competition very interesting.
“What jumps out about Jack is everything,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “His physical prowess, throwing the football, quick release, great reads, great decisions, athletic – he’s a very capable runner even though that’s not where he’s going to beat you most of the time. He’s going to beat you in the pocket. Great attitude. Intelligent. Team guy. There’s no weakness.”
Zack Moss is coming off of a 1,000-yard season and will be one of the top returning rushers in the Pac-12. He rushed for 981 yards and eight touchdowns his last 10 games (nine conference games and the Heart of Dallas Bowl). Armand Shyne, who competed for the starting job with Moss in camp, sat out the season due to injury, but will return for spring ball. Devonta’e Henry-Cole served as the primary backup this season, and he’ll also be back. TJ Green preserved a redshirt season, and former Utah high school standout and Stanford recruit Sione Lund has enrolled and will take part in spring ball. Lund was a four-star recruit coming out of Brighton High.
Wide receiver/tight end
The conference’s second leading receiver, Darren Carrington II, is gone from this group. Raelon Singleton (531 receiving yards) and Siaosi Wilson (393 receiving yards) ranked second and third, respectively, combined for fewer yards that Carrington. But even with the loss of Carrington, the Utes have four receivers with coming back with 290 yards receiving or more. In fall camp they’ll add Britain Covey, who led the team in receiving in 2015. Incoming freshman Terrell Perriman from Miami joins the group as an early enrollee.
Starting tight ends Siale Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley combined for six catches. They both graduate, but Jake Jackson returns as do Bapa Falemaka and Chad Hekking are all returning scholarship players at the tight end spot.
The Utes expect Lo Falemaka getting another year of eligibility to be a slam dunk, but official ruling could be months away. The question for the Utes will be whether they opt to simply plug the hole vacated by Salesi Uhatafe’s graduation or reshuffle the line. Jackson Barton, Jordan Agasiva, Darrin Paula and Falemaka would be returning starters from a group that played better late in the season. Barton at left tackle and Falemaka at center seem fairly ensconced. Alani Havili-Katoa also started two games and Paul Toala also made a start. Johnny Capra also got reps throughout the season, including a big chunk of playing time against Washington. Nick Ford preserved a redshirt season, and could also compete for time.
Three-quarters of the starting lineup graduates with Bradlee Anae the one holdover at defensive end. Anae excelled rushing the passer, particularly in the last four games. His aggressiveness rushing from the edge got taken advantage of in the run game at times, but he’ll be a cornerstone of the group next season. Converted wide receiver Caleb Repp, redshirt sophomore Chris Hart and freshman Max Tupai all got some playing time this past season. Mika Tafua joined the program in October as a defensive end and sat out as a redshirt, and the Utes signed junior college defensive end Jeremiah Jordan.
Up the middle, Whittingham described sophomore defensive tackle Leki Fotu as a player who could be “special.” A 6-foot-5, 323-pound sophomore, Fotu played in all 12 games and made two starts. Peter Tonga played in 11 games as a tackle, and John Penisini appeared in all 12 games with one start. The Utes will still look to add to both the tackles and end spots via recruiting. Whittingham said, “The defensive front, we think, once again is going to be a strength for us.”
The two starters and the team’s two leading tacklers graduate from this group. Sophomore Donovan Thompson and junior Cody Barton each played in every game at the linebacker spots this past season, and Thompson worked into the starting lineup late in the season. Barton has shown flashes of being a playmaker, putting pressure on the quarterback (four sacks) as well as recovering three fumbles. Junior college transfer Bryant Pirtle also figures to compete for time immediately. Last season, the Utes worked primarily with four linebackers.
Chase Hansen played at less than full strength late in the season due to injuries. If he returns, he’ll be the leader of the defense from the strong safety spot. Marquise Blair will not be back until preseason camp. Corrion Ballard has played both safety spots and also started. Ballard tied for the team lead with two interceptions. The Utes return an all-conference cornerback in Julian Blackmon, who is coming off an MVP appearance performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. He appears poised to be a leader in the secondary. Jaylon Johnson likely won’t be able to participate in spring ball, and Casey Hughes’ status remains uncertain for spring. Tyrone Smith, who sat out this season after suffering an injury in preseason, will be ready for spring ball. High school signee Malone Mataele did a little bit of everything in high school and will join the program as a defensive back this winter.
The Utes bring back the nation’s top kicker in Lou Groza Award winner and consensus All-American Matt Gay, and last season was just Gay’s first kicking in college after playing soccer. One of the nation’s top punters and a former Ray Guy Award winner also returns in Mitch Wishnowsky. He also took over kickoff duties this past season and showed off a booming leg. While Alex Whittingham handled much of the long snapping duties this season, Noah Rodriguez-Trammell played in the last seven games as a long snapper and will be a rising sophomore.