Utah receiver Britain Covey suggests the team’s three seniors from Florida should have a street sign named for them in Salt Lake City. Junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson’s tribute to his teammates is intentionally staying out of the seniors’ pregame spotlight Saturday.
Utah will honor seniors who already have produced some historic achievements, with much more potentially ahead for them. With a win over Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the No. 6 Utes will return to the Pac-12 championship game next week with hopes of a Rose Bowl berth or College Football Playoff selection.
Some of them could have entered the NFL draft last April. Their return, amid some self-interest in improving their draft positions, was an endorsement of what might develop for the Utes in 2019. “All the seniors came back with a purpose, because of what they wanted to accomplish — they weren’t going to come back and just waste time,” Covey said.
COLORADO AT NO. 6 UTAH
When • Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4.
“They've been leaders ever since I got here, by their actions,” said Johnson, who intends to turn pro after the season. “Honestly, they're not big talkers; they're not going to get you riled up like that, verbally … [but] it's only contagious for everyone to do what they do.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham proposed including Johnson on Senior Day, because he’ll leave with a degree, but Johnson wants the others to be celebrated. As always, the seniors’ backgrounds are varied, with several having transferred from junior colleges or other four-year schools. Only seven of the 19 honorees came from the 2016 recruiting class, but that’s a good starting point for framing this group.
Of those seven, five have been selected to the Senior Bowl all-star game in January: defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, safeties Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess and running back Zack Moss (linebacker Francis Bernard, a BYU transfer, is another invitee). Moss is part of a famous subset, the Hallandale Trio with quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Demari Simpkins.
Nothing like this is likely to happen again, with three high school teammates arriving and departing together after making such an impact. Their tenure at Utah, 2,600 miles from home, is remarkable — and so is the way they got together as high school seniors in 2015, when Moss and Simpkins transferred from other schools to Hallandale. The convergence was “a blessing from God,” Simpkins said. “He put us together for a reason.”
“Magically, somehow, some way, we all ended up playing together,” Moss said.
Four years later, Moss is Utah's career rushing leader, Huntley is having the best senior season of any Ute quarterback in history and Simpkins is tied for the team lead in receptions. “It's really somewhat amazing,” said Dennis Erickson, the former Ute assistant coach who recruited them, using his ties as a former University of Miami head coach. “It's been really fun for me to watch them. … They've grown not only as football players, but as people.”
They'll be well remembered in Utah, while being introduced alphabetically prior to Saturday's game vs. Colorado. The order matches their jersey numbers: Huntley (No. 1), Moss (No. 2), Simpkins (No. 3).
“We had a plan when we got here, and we didn't give up when things didn't go our way the first year, the second year, the third year,” Simpkins said. “And we have big goals this year, and we're living up to it.”
“We definitely came up here wanting to be legendary, wanted to make some history here,” Moss said. “All the things that have happened, we couldn't have scripted.”
“They're going to be legends,” said Covey, who believes a Hallandale Trio street sign should adorn “a cul-de-sac or something.”
Whittingham all season has endorsed Huntley as the team’s leader. “He has an energy about him,” said Seattle Seahawks linebacker Cody Barton, a Utah co-captain in 2018. “You want to follow him. That’s a great quality to have in a quarterback. There’s just something about him; guys want to follow him and do as he does.”
“He's got us by his finger,” Simpkins said. “If he says we're going to do something, that's what we're going to do. … It's just his grit and his grind. You see how hard he plays on the field, you want to be behind that guy.”
Not since Matt Sauk of Utah State (1997), Brian Johnson of Utah (2008) or Max Hall of BYU (2009) had the QB of any FBS program in the state produced a truly fulfilling senior year — remaining healthy enough to start every game and departing with a high approval rating of the school’s fan base.
Huntley has more than answered that challenge, ranking No. 2 nationally in passing accuracy (75.0%) and No. 5 in both passing efficiency and ESPN's Total QBR, with 14 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in 232 attempts.
He has thrived under new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig in a scheme that asks a lot of the quarterback, devoting himself to film study. Moss credits Huntley’s “maturity on and off the field” for his improvement, and Huntley agrees. “I’d say the first few years, I was just playing football,” he said. “These last couple of years, I started loving football, as in sacrificing a lot of my free time, just to better myself.”
Huntley missed most of four games as a sophomore and the last five games of his junior season, before inspiring his teammates by playing through injuries this year. Moss remembers their last game at Hallandale, when Huntley had “a high ankle sprain that he probably shouldn't even have been walking on. That's why it's not crazy to me to see him playing on certain injuries now. He's always been a warrior, for sure.”
In Hallandale’s pass-oriented offense, Huntley and Simpkins overshadowed Moss, who’s the centerpiece of Utah’s offense. Moss missed the last five games of 2018 with a knee injury, then was sidelined for 1½ games this season, while also sitting out two second halves and two fourth quarters with Utah way ahead. Yet he has rushed for 1,158 yards to lead the Pac-12.
With probably three games to go, Moss needs 362 yards to break John White’s school season record. He earned the career rushing record in October and may take it into unreachable territory, being 191 yards away from 4,000. Partly because Utah has relied heavily on junior college running backs, Moss is the school’s first three-time 1,000-yard rusher. His legacy includes breaking that recruiting trend, with younger players lined up behind him in the program.
“He came here to get a lot of things accomplished,” Huntley said, “so it's good that he'll be going out a legend.”
Simpkins’ hallmark is durability. If the Utes play three more games, he can appear in a school-record 54th contest. With 26 catches this season, he’s tied with tight end Brant Kuithe for the team lead and may become more prominent, with Bryan Thompson injured.
Simpkins is “the leader of the receiving core,” Covey said. “That is undervalued and under appreciated, how much of an impact he’s had.”
All that remains for the Trio is the conclusion of their Utah tenures, with all kinds of possibilities. In November 2015, Hallandale lost 51-46 to Bishop Moore of Orlando in the 5A regional finals. Playing on that injured ankle, Huntley passed for 380 yards and four touchdowns (three to Simpkins). Moss rushed for 120 yards on 13 carries.
By the Miami Herald's account, Huntley afterward was “inconsolable.”
Like his Hallandale teammates and Utah’s other history-making seniors, he’ll be hoping for a better ending.
Utah’s 2019 seniors:
Bradlee Anae, defensive end – Needs two sacks for the school career record (29½).
Francis Bernard, linebacker – BYU transfer is the team’s leading tackler.
Julian Blackmon, safety – Leads the team with four interceptions in first season at safety.
Terrell Burgess, safety – Became a Senior Bowl-level player in first season as starter.
Leki Fotu, defensive tackle – Second on the team with seven tackles for loss.
Malik Haynes, defensive end – Walk-on received a scholarship in August.
Tyler Huntley, quarterback – Has thrown only two interceptions in 232 attempts.
Kyle Lanterman, offensive lineman – Walk-on received a scholarship during spring practice.
Tyreke Lewis, cornerback – Second on the team with six pass breakups.
Alex Locklear, offensive lineman – Graduate transfer from Marshall has played in nine games.
Zack Moss, running back – Needs 191 yards for 4,000 in his career.
Josh Nurse, cornerback – One of nine Utah players to record a sack this season.
Darrin Paulo, offensive tackle – Anchor of the team’s most improved position group.
John Penisini, defensive tackle – One of four Ute linemen to receive a Pac-12 weekly award.
Demari Simpkins, receiver – Tied with Brant Kuithe for the team lead in receptions (26).
Andrew Strauch, kicker – Of his 71 kickoffs, 38 have resulted in touchbacks.
Hunter Thedford, tight end – Graduate transfer from SMU has provided blocking help.
Paul Toala, offensive lineman – Nominated for Burlsworth Trophy as a former walk-on.
Derrick Vickers, receiver – Versatile contributor as a runner and receiver.