Demari Simpkins thrived in jersey No. 6 as a high school receiver in Florida and showed promise as No. 17 in his first two seasons in Utah's program.
Simpkins has switched this season to No. 3 for one irresistible reason: He wanted to complete the Hallandale Trio.
“It's fun,” he said.
So here they are, quarterback Tyler Huntley (No. 1), running back Zack Moss (No. 2) and Simpkins (No. 3), teammates of the past and present, positioned as three of the Ute offense’s most important people in 2018. If not for receiver Britain Covey’s presence, the threesome might lead Utah in passing, running and receiving.
“Kind of crazy,” said Dameon Jones, their high school coach.
If the Hallandale Trio once was something of a novelty, with three players in college program 2,500 miles away from their high school, the group of juniors is a major production now. None of this is surprising to them, of course.
“It's why we came here,” Moss said.
“We wouldn't have come here if we didn't picture that,” Huntley said.
They’ve become another chapter in Dennis Erickson’s legacy. The former University of Miami coach used his South Florida connections to deliver three playmakers near the end of his four-year tenure as a Ute assistant.
They united only as high school seniors in 2015, when Moss and Simpkins transferred to Hallandale and joined Huntley, an established QB who would become the Gatorade Player of the Year in Florida. The convergence was “a blessing from God,” Simpkins said. “He put us together for a reason.”
UTAH’S HALLANDALE TRIO
High school: Went 34-10 as a starting quarterback, passing for 9,053 yards and 106 touchdowns in three seasons, including 3,636 yards and 42 scores in 13 games as a senior. College: Passed for 2,411 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore, going 6-4 as a starter.
High school: Ran for 1,098 yards and 17 touchdowns on 145 carries as a Hallandale senior, having transferred from Mater Academy Charter. College: Ran for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns with five 100-yard games, including 196 yards vs. Colorado as a sophomore.
High school: Caught 38 passes for 506 yards and seven touchdowns as a Hallandale senior, having transferred from Miramar, where he played quarterback. College: Caught 29 passes for 354 yards as a sophomore, giving him 48 receptions in two years.
They thrived at Hallandale, as “game-changers, explosive guys,” Jones said. The Chargers reached the 5A regional final before losing 51-46 to Bishop Moore of Orlando, with Huntley overcoming a high ankle sprain to pass for 380 yards and four touchdowns (three to Simpkins) and Moss rushing for 120 yards on 13 carries.
“I just knew if [Huntley] had been healthy, we would have won that game,” Jones said this week.
The trio remained in place after Moss decommitted from Miami and joined the others by signing with Utah. They were willing to go “somewhere different, out of the norm,” Jones said, “to get an opportunity to do what they did, playing early.”
It took them only a year, really. They played in backup roles as freshmen and became starters as sophomores — at least part-time, in Simpkins' case. Much is expected of them in 2018.
Based on the late surge that gave him a total of 1,173 rushing yards last season, Moss may challenge the school record of 1,579 yards. He needs 1,665 yards to break Utah's career record in only three seasons, although sharing time with Armand Shyne and other backs may reduce his workload.
Huntley’s forecasts also come with a variable. He missed nearly four full games in Pac-12 play last season due to injury.
If Huntley plays in 13 games, counting a bowl appearance, statistical expert Joseph Silverzweig of Utah Rivals projects him to pass for 3,874 yards — with Simpkins' 55 catches accounting for 891 yards (second on the team to Covey’s 73 receptions). Having played quarterback at his previous high school, Simpkins figured his future was as a receiver, explaining why he joined Huntley as a senior. He has made more impact in college than former Hallandale star Josh Hammonds, who signed with Florida.
That projected yardage total for Huntley seems astronomical, considering he started and finished only one of Utah's Pac-12 victories last year, beating a depleted UCLA team. Yet coaches have repeatedly praised his performance in preseason camp, and a quarterback who once passed for 500 yards and seven touchdowns in a high school game appears comfortable in his second year in this offensive scheme. He just needs to stay healthy.
“He had to realize that he couldn't do some of the things he did in high school, as in taking care of his body and not taking some of those hits,” Simpkins said. “And managing the game, just taking what the defense gives him.”
Moss may become an NFL draft prospect as a junior. Either way, there's a shelf life for the Hallandale Trio at Utah, with the collective goal being a better ending. They helped their high school program make its deepest playoff run, only to lose to Bishop Moore in that wild game. The trio's big performances that night were insufficient, leaving Huntley “inconsolable,” as portrayed by the Miami Herald.
Three years later, winning Utah’s first Pac-12 South championship would give them a lot of consolation.