Utah’s football program expects to celebrate a significant record Saturday, with Zack Moss needing only 55 yards against No. 17 Arizona State to become the school’s career rushing leader.
Eddie Johnson’s record of 3,219 yards has stood since 1988. Utah’s receivers are moving toward another distinction from that century, in a way that coaches are framing as a compliment to them. The staff is proactively praising the group, hoping to prevent the players from feeling devalued or disillusioned, just because they’re not compiling big numbers individually.
The six receivers on the two-deep roster — Bryan Thompson, Demari Simpkins, Samson Nacua, Jaylen Dixon, Solomon Enis and Derrick Vickers — collectively were named the No. 13 Utes’ in-house offensive player of the week after catching 11 passes in a 52-7 victory at Oregon State. The strategy was shrewd, as the staff recognized the players for being “unselfish” — a word that coach Kyle Whittingham and receivers coach Guy Holliday each repeated this week.
“I know the sacrifices each of you is making and I appreciate it,” Holliday told his receivers in a text message that he publicly shared.
As quarterback Tyler Huntley continues to rank among the country’s most efficient passers, none of his receivers has caught more than 14 passes through six games. Even if the Utes play 14 games, counting the Pac-12 championship game and a bowl game, it is possible the team leader will have fewer than 30 receptions for the season.
That last happened at Utah in 1990, when coach Ron McBride's move to a run-oriented offense resulted in Bryan Rowley's leading the team with 28 receptions in 11 games.
Utah's receivers are defined by their depth, with a different player seemingly emerging in each game. That also keeps any of them from distinguishing himself, in comparison to the Pac-12's top receivers or recent players in Ute history. Utah's low volume of passing, relative to the conference and the rest of the country, also reduces the receivers' statistics. Even with his 75.6 percentage, Huntley has only 99 completions in six games, partly because the Utes have been way ahead in the fourth quarters of their five wins.
Four of those six receivers also have rushing statistics, combining for 129 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
SPREADING IT AROUND
Statistics for Utah's top eight receivers through six games:
Demari Simkins – 14 catches, 188 yards.
Jaylen Dixon – 12 catches, 161 yards, one touchdown.
Bryan Thompson – 11 catches, 310 yards, two touchdowns.
Brant Kuithe* – 11 catches, 207 yards, two touchdowns.
Derrick Vickers – 10 catches, 111 yards.
Britain Covey** – 10 catches, 77 yards.
Samson Nacua – nine catches, 138 yards, two touchdowns.
Solomon Enis – eight catches, 109 yards.
* Plays tight end. ** Intends to redshirt after playing in four games
“If we’re winning, I think everyone’s on the same page,” Enis said. “It’s just the team’s success over our own success; our own success is going to come with it. … So I don’t think anyone’s become selfish, because we all can make plays. We can all have fun.”
One question going into the season was which receiver would establish himself as a complement to Britain Covey, Utah’s top pass-catcher in 2018. The answer is both “all of the above” and “none of the above.” It also is a trick question. Covey intends to redshirt, rehabilitate his knee and return as a junior in 2020 after catching 10 passes in the first four games (he continues to practice with the team, allowing for a possible comeback this season).
Nacua's impact is an the immediate effect of Covey's absence. Nacua, Covey's high school teammate, had caught only one pass for 2 yards through four games. He totaled eight catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns against Washington State and Oregon State. Simpkins also has surfaced lately, after Thompson and Dixon initially looked like the biggest threats.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme is not designed to showcase any particular receiver, and Huntley targets anyone who’s open, including tight end Brant Kuithe. Utah’s lack of a go-to receiver seemingly has been an advantage, not a flaw. In any case, the coaches want to make sure the receivers are not worried about their numbers.
“A lot of times when the ball's being spread around and each guy's not getting [it] as much as he wanted, you have a little bit of an issue,” Whittingham said. “But not with this group. … They're team players all the way and they support each other, they cheer for each other, and it's been really a positive for our football team, to have that mentality.”
Holliday, a veteran of the profession, told his receivers they've given him “the best feeling I've had as a coach in a long time.”
The coaches will hope for more production vs. ASU, from whomever this week’s top receiver happens to be.
NO. 17 ARIZONA STATE AT NO. 13 UTAH
When • Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network