The most dramatic, productive kickoff-return sequence of Utah’s season came last Saturday, when Demari Simpkins shrewdly watched the football sail out of bounds. The Utes took over the ball at their 35-yard line, their best field position of the year after receiving a kickoff.
The NCAA’s new rule allowing teams that fair-catch a kickoff to take possession at their 25 basically has done what Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said last summer would happen: “The normal kickoff with the normal return is going to become a dinosaur.”
The impact so far is less clear, but another new rule also is becoming significant from Utah’s perspective. The NCAA is allowing players to appear in as many as four games and retain a year’s eligibility as redshirts. Eight true freshmen have played for Utah. Four have competed in all four games, becoming vital players: tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe, receiver Solomon Enis and long snapper Maddie Golden. The other four — defensive backs Malone Mataele and R.J. Hubert, running back Devin Brumfield and offensive lineman Braeden Daniels — have played one or two games, so their redshirt status will remain in question for a while.
The redshirt option also is in play for older athletes who played as freshmen, such as sophomore kicker/punter Chayden Johnston and receiver Bryan Thompson, who have yet to appear in 2018. As for highly regarded quarterback Jack Tuttle, coaches have said since August that they hoped to redshirt him. At this stage, the freshman is the No. 3 QB and something unusual would have to happen for him to get on the field in more than four games, if at all.
Utah's staff is keeping track of the four-game limit, but won't hesitate to void a potential redshirt year if necessary. “The overriding factor is if we think a guy can help us win now, we're going to use him,” Whittingham said.
The allowance is designed as a way of expanding the active roster, if injuries affect a team. It also helps keep freshmen engaged in the program. Mataele has played in two games on special teams and is staying flexible, knowing he may be needed on defense. As for redshirting or not, he's happy either way.
“Personally, I'm just getting prepared,” he said. “Anything can change throughout the season, as far as injuries. … I'm just waiting on my moment. I'm loving every day of practice.”
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said the Buffaloes are consciously holding back players at certain positions “for later in the season, to use those [four] games if we need 'em. We're just kind of seeing how the season plays out.”
The kickoff rule makes any return a novelty lately, especially on Utah’s receiving end. The opponents' 15 kickoffs have resulted in eight touchbacks (kickoffs into the end zone), four fair-catches in the field of play, one out-of-bounds kick and two returns — including one for zero yards.
When the Utes trailed Weber State 10-0, Julian Blackmon returned the ball 24 yards to the 28. After a go-ahead score last weekend, Washington State tried a short, high kick to the 31. After a review, Jameson Field’s knee was ruled to have touched the ground upon the catch, canceling his 14-yard return. Even so, Whittingham is happy the Utes have never started a post-kickoff possession from inside their 25.
“It's the data,” he said, explaining the fair-catching strategy. “You crunch the numbers, and look at what is the starting point of returns you're getting in different spots on the field. … We're still convinced it's the way to go. You watch teams return it, and they very rarely reach the 25. That's just the way it is.”
That’s happened only once against the Utes, in fact. Matt Gay routinely kicks the ball deep into the end zone. Four of his 19 kickoffs have been returned, with an average starting position of the 23.7-yard line. Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed claims a distinction among Ute opponents. He made it past the 25, to the 29.
UTAH AT NO. 14 STANFORD
When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN