The most productive season for a receiver in Utah football history came 10 years ago, when David Reed caught 81 passes, even as the Utes played two quarterbacks who were new to Division I football.
Reed’s record, with the aid of quarterbacks Terrance Cain and Jordan Wynn, makes him the answer to one of the tougher all-time trivia questions involving the Utes. Jaylen Dixon is in a quiz category of his own as the answer to this question. Who was the Utes’ No. 2 receiver last year behind star Britain Covey?
Dixon probably won’t fly under the radar this season.
He has emerged in preseason camp as a favorite of coach Kyle Whittingham, who keeps raving about his speed. This is the latest development among a group of receivers that’s apparently becoming more dependable. “Drops” was a frequently used word for these players last September; now Whittingham is talking about consistency, “maybe no drop off” is his phrase for the coaching staff’s ability to rotate multiple athletes at two or three positions in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme.
Ludwig often will use a package with two tight ends and one running back; that grouping allows for only two receivers. So those players will have to earn their opportunities — or hope for a lot of third-and-long situations, as any offense would like to avoid.
Understandably, based on the group’s struggles in the early stages of 2018, Whittingham is asked about the receivers in nearly every media session. “I like them, I really like them,” he said Wednesday. “The thing is, there’s not one that’s just separated himself and become ‘the guy.’ But we’ve got a bunch of guys that I think are going to perform in games and perform well.”
2018 statistics for Utah's returning wide receivers:
Britain Covey – 60 catches, 637 yards, one touchdown.
Jaylen Dixon – 32 catches, 589 yards, two touchdowns.
Samson Nacua – 31 catches, 362 yards, five touchdowns.
Demari Simpkins – 26 catches, 297 yards, two touchdowns.
Solomon Enis – 13 catches, 179 yards, one touchdown.
Bryan Thompson – 1 catch, 31 yards.
Covey became the go-to player last season with 60 receptions for 637 before he was injured while returning the second-half kickoff vs. Washington in the Pac-12 championship game. Recovering from knee surgery, Covey realistically has targeted various games for his return, including Utah’s Pac-12 opener, Sept. 20 at USC.
As of Wednesday, though, Covey said, “Throughout fall camp, I’ve had enough progress and enough reps where I could feel comfortable about trying to go earlier."
That brings the Aug. 29 opener at BYU into play for Covey, with the game being in his hometown of Provo.
The receivers’ depth chart, whenever it is updated, will be interesting. Covey, Demari Simpkins and Bryan Thompson were listed No. 1 at the three spots coming into August; Dixon, Solomon Enis, Samson Nacua and walk-on Devaughn Vele have earned mention at various times this month.
The 6-foot-4 Vele was a big hit in spring practice. “Devaughn has all the physical gifts, but he's combined it with humility and coachability,” Covey said. “He had to learn, just like everybody else. He's made mistakes, just like everybody else. But he's so coachable that you can rely on him to not make the same mistake twice. I think that's kind of what's caught people's attention and why you can trust him.”
Dixon became fill-in quarterback Jason Shelley's top target last season after Covey's injury. Half of Dixon's 32 catches as a redshirt freshman came in the Pac-12 title game and the Holiday Bowl vs. Northwestern. He also caught a 36-yard pass from Shelley, his high school quarterback in Texas, in Utah's go-ahead drive vs. Oregon and four receptions for 125 yards at Colorado.
His only catch vs. BYU, though, went for a 4-yard loss. He also had a ball bounce off his chest, resulting in an interception at Arizona State, and lost a fumble after a reception vs. Northwestern.
Whittingham labeled Dixon one of the stars of last Saturday's scrimmage, with Utah's distributed highlights showing him catching two touchdown passes from Tyler Huntley. The Utes will stage another closed scrimmage Saturday, concluding their camp.
As for other key positions, Whittingham has reduced the kicking competition to Andrew Strauch, a graduate transfer from UCLA, and Nels Haltom, a Bountiful High School alumnus who kicked for Grossmont College in California. That eliminates Jadon Redding, a walk-on from Virginia, the only one of the three who participated in spring practice.
The one remaining slot with the first-team offensive line, Whittingham said, is down to two guards: senior Paul Toala and freshman Johnny Maea. Offensive tackle Bamidele Olaseni is practicing this week but has not been cleared by the NCAA for game participation, Whittingham said, although he completed academic requirements at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.