Utah receiver Samson Nacua looked back long enough to know that quarterback Tyler Huntley was in trouble. Nacua kept running down the sideline and soon discovered that somehow, Huntley managed to deliver a pass in his direction.
His next thought? “Oh, my goodness. I've got to make a play.”
Nacua misjudged the ball, thinking he needed to slow down and catch an underthrown pass. And then he adjusted again, extending his arms to grab the ball and complete Utah’s longest and most important reception this year. The 57-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter helped secure a 40-21 victory last Saturday at Stanford and may have saved the season for the Ute receivers, who had not caught a TD pass since the first game, Aug. 30 vs. Weber State.
This group was the biggest question mark among Utah’s personnel coming into the year, and the initial answers were discouraging. Coach Kyle Whittingham repeatedly cited dropped passes as a problem, especially during games against Northern Illinois and Washington as the Ute offense produced a total of 17 points. Fans and the media joined in the criticism, explaining why Huntley’s first words in the interview room Saturday night were a blurted defense of his receivers.
The season’s start also was rough for receivers coach Guy Holliday. “I think one of my strengths is I’m the same every day, whether it’s good times or bad times,” he said. “I’m going to demand the same results. Do I put my arm around 'em? Sure, I do. Am I soft on ‘em? No. My expectations are a lot higher than our fans’, I can tell you that.”
Nacua sang the school’s fight song as he walked alone toward the visiting locker room Saturday. For once this season, a Ute receiver other than Britain Covey (Nacua’s quarterback at Timpview High School) genuinely could feel like a Utah Man.
“Samson made a huge play for himself and all of us,” receiver Demari Simpkins said. “I feel like it's going to make us relax more and showed us that we can do this. Let's just relax and just play.”
The irony is the receivers' struggles — plus issues with pass protection and Huntley’s inaccuracy at times — may have forced the coaching staff to re-emphasize running game. That’s ultimately proving to be a good thing. So the receivers know they’ll have fewer opportunities now, Covey said, and they have to maximize them.
That's what they did at Stanford, with no drops and 12 catches among the wide receivers: six for Covey, three for Simpkins, two for Nacua and one for Solomon Enis. Mixing in four catches by tight ends, the Ute passing game finally looked like the version of August, when the offense performed well in preseason camp.
Maybe too well, as it turns out. The receivers then went from being overconfident to overthinking the process after their initial troubles, by Nacua's account.
“I think we just over-hyped ourselves, talking about what we were going to do, and we were overlooking the little things,” he said. “And then when the ball came our way, the overthinking came into play.”
ARIZONA AT UTAH
When • Friday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN
That’s how the drops compounded and confidence eroded. Yet even before Nacua’s big play, the receivers were showing improvement. Simpkins, especially, surfaced against Washington State and Stanford. And with the emergence of freshman tight end Brant Kuithe as “a viable weapon,” according to Whittingham, Huntley now has some dependable targets.
“Definitely, you're happy that everybody did their job,” Huntley said. “They know they're capable of doing it. The more chances they get of redeeming themselves, the more chances they're going to come through.”
Huntley had asked Saturday, “What y’all got to say about my receivers now?” They’re trending up, at the moment.
Receptions and yards for Utah’s wide receivers through five games:
Britain Covey • 33 for 354.
Samson Nacua • 13 for 146, one touchdown.
Demari Simpkins • 9 for 92, one touchdown.
Siaosi Mariner • 7 for 82.
Solomon Enis • 5 for 58.
Jaylen Dixon • 4 for 128.
Bronson Boyd • 2 for 40.