Utes have gotten creative with their run game in Zack Moss’ absence — and he could return vs. Oregon State

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) University of Utah Utes receiver Derrick Vickers celebrates a rushing touchdown as the Utes host the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

Everyone involved with Utah’s football program would love to know what running back Zack Moss could have done at USC on the Utes’ drives that reached the 2- and 1-yard lines and produced a total of three points in a 30-23 defeat.

Even so, Utah has done a remarkable job of rushing for 419 yards in two games, beyond the 20 yards that Moss gained before injuring his shoulder early in the second quarter in Los Angeles. The Utes are proud of their depth at running back, and Devin Brumfield and Devonta’e Henry-Cole took turns as the leading rusher against USC and Washington State (a 38-13 victory).

Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley also is an adept runner, on scrambles and designed plays. The added dimension of Utah’s running game is offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s use of other players. In the 10 years that Ludwig was gone from Utah’s staff, working at other schools, the biggest development in his scheme is the increased role of receivers who carry the ball on sweeps.

In 2008, for example, Utah receivers carried the ball 28 times in 13 games under Ludwig. In five games this season, receivers have rushed 23 times. Counting backup quarterback Jason Shelley and tight end Brant Kuithe, Ludwig has used six non-traditional rushers on a total of 17 plays in the last two games, accounting for 111 yards.


Here’s how Utah has used receivers, a tight end and a backup quarterback as rushers vs. USC and Washington State (two-game totals):

Jaylen Dixon, WR – five carries, 35 yards.

Derrick Vickers, WR – five carries, 33 yards, one touchdown.

Jason Shelley, QB – three carries, 21 yards.

Britain Covey, WR – two carries, 13 yards.

Brant Kuithe, TE – one carry, 5 yards.

Demari Simpkins, WR – one carry, 4 yards.

Totals – 17 carries, 111 yards.

The sweep action has two purposes, whether the ball is faked or given to a receiver coming across the formation: It keeps safeties from crashing toward the line of scrimmage and it stresses a defense on the perimeter. Utah’s speed is an element Ludwig is trying to maximize, as the program’s level of athleticism rises in the Pac-12 era.

“It's just part of the spread [scheme's] overriding philosophy to attack the entire field,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “When you attack the edges like that with speed, it loosens up the interior, and now you've got more room and opportunity. … It's something that maybe we haven't done enough of over the last several years, and Andy has done a nice job. We've gotten a lot of mileage out if it.”

With quarterback Tyler Huntley slightly bothered by a foot injury last week, Ludwig used Shelley sporadically with zone-read option plays. He usually appeared for one play on first down, then Huntley would return.

The package was designed to reduce the hits on Huntley “and to get Jason involved,” Whittingham said. “He's a weapon, and Andy does a nice job of trying to utilize every player at his disposal, and that was exactly the reason for it. [Shelley] did well; it was productive.”

So was Utah’s running game overall against USC and Washington State, even without Moss — except near the goal line, as the Utes converted 6 of 12 trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns.

That deficiency aside, Brumfield and Henry-Cole succeeded in reducing the effect of Moss' absence.

Henry-Cole was effective against WSU in the fourth quarter, when the Utes were killing the clock with a 31-13 lead. He gained 45 yards on 10 carries on Utah's last two possessions, finishing with 79 yards on 15 attempts. “That's with every running back: When you get your rhythm, it's a great feeling,” Henry-Cole said. “Whoever had a good hot streak in the game was going to be getting the rock. I stayed patient, and my time came.”

It was a rewarding game for Henry-Cole, whose adventurous college career included voiding his planned redshirt season of 2016 by carrying the ball once at Oregon State in his only play of the entire season. That was before the NCAA made a provision allowing a player to participate in up to four games and maintain a year’s eligibility.

Moss may be healthy enough to play Oct. 12 at OSU. Even so, Henry-Cole has earned the right to get more than one carry in his return to Corvallis, Ore.


When • Oct. 12, 6 p.m. MDT

TV • Pac-12 Networks.