The University of Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011. After making the leap from the Mountain West, it took the football program eight years to win the Pac-12 South and play in the Pac-12 championship game. It took nine years to get to the doorstep of the College Football Playoff.
The Utes won 11 games in 2019 with a roster full of upperclassmen at key positions. They steamrolled the Pac-12 South after losing their conference opener to USC at the LA Coliseum. They rose to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, with everything still to play for, then fell to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
That game, followed by a one-sided loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl, put a damper on a season that was full of landmark achievements, while reaffirming that, under the right circumstances, the Pac-12 can be a national player in this CFP era.
“We were one spot away [from the College Football Playoff], and that just shows you how close we are as a program,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said last month, less than 48 hours removed from the loss to Oregon. “We’ve won the South two years in a row, we were living in the top 10 for the last three or four weeks, so we know that we’re this close to reaching all of our goals.”
Utah is losing nine starters on defense, including its entire secondary. Record-setting quarterback Tyler Huntley is gone, as is every-down workhorse running back Zack Moss. There are questions at receiver, there are even more questions along the offensive line. Who replaces Bradlee Anae at defensive end?
The bad news is, there are a lot of holes to fill. Coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff have a lot of internal options to fill those holes, it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces to fit. The best news for Utah fans is that 2019’s standout senior class is leaving the program in better shape than they found it.
“Those guys know the blueprint, you know, from the years and the work that we put in over the years,” Moss said after the Alamo Bowl. “They know what it takes to be here. You know, going back-to-back championship games. Being South champions back-to-back years, they know the recipe.
“It was different when we came in. We didn't know that recipe. We had to learn and work through that, but now they, you know, have something they can work on. So I mean, I'm going to be excited to continue to watch the guys work.”
UTES AT A GLANCE
2019: 11-3 overall (8-1 Pac-12; Pac-12 South champion)
Key departures: QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss, LT Darrin Paulo, WR Demari Simpkins, DE Bradlee Anae, DT John Penisini, DT Leki Fotu, LB Francis Bernard, CB Jaylon Johnson (NFL Draft), CB Josh Nurse, CB Tareke Lewis, CB Javelin K. Guidry, SS Terrell Burgess
Key returners: TE Brant Kuithe, WR Bryan Thompson, WR Solomon Enis, WR Samson Nacua, DE Mika Tafua, LB Devin Lloyd, S Vonte Davis
Key recruits: QB Jake Bentley (graduate transfer, South Carolina), CB Clark Phillips III (four-star, highest-rated recruit in program history), DE Van Fillinger (four-star, Draper native), DE Xavier Carlton (four-star, Draper native), S Nate Ritchie (three-star, Lone Peak High School, could be in the mix to start immediately).
2020 home games: BYU, Montana State, Arizona, Oregon State, USC, Washington
2020 road games: Wyoming, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, UCLA, Washington State
The most-important position battle once spring practice starts will be at the most-important position on the field, quarterback. South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley and redshirt sophomore Cam Rising will compete for that opening, with Drew Lisk potentially playing a role. Whoever wins the job, he will have big shoes to fill after Huntley completed 73.1 percent of his passes, and generally played smart, mistake-free football for the majority of 14 games.
Whether it’s Bentley, who has 34 games in the SEC under his belt, or Rising, who has a year in Andy Ludwig’s system, it does feel like that situation will get sorted out. Whoever gets it, they’re looking at a mixed bag at other positions across the offense.
The good news is, seven players who caught at least 10 passes in 2019 are slated to return. That group includes All-Pac-12 tight end Brant Kuithe, who led the Utes in receptions (34), yards (602) and touchdowns (six). The return of Britain Covey should also be a boon to the passing attack.
The bad news is, Moss did so much for this offense that he will be near-impossible to replace. His 1,804 yards of total offense accounted for more than 30 percent of all yards Utah netted in 2019. By any standard, that’s a ton. Conventional thinking says junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore will get the first cracks to replace Moss come springtime. Both have experience under Ludwig, so that bodes well, even if the Utes ultimately opt for a committee approach.
There is one other question mark on offense, and it’s big, both literally and figuratively. Outside of departing left tackle Darrin Paulo, the offensive line was very young in 2019. That fact came to light after Oregon and Texas both won respective battles in the trenches, but patience has been and will continue to be paramount with this group.
If you’re looking for a sign of faith from Whittingham and Ludwig in their offensive line, pay attention to what they do with the rest of the available scholarships with the regular signing period beginning Feb. 5. Specifically, whether or not Utah goes to the transfer portal for immediate help.
“We just have a couple spots, and we may or may not fill them in February, we’ll see,” Whittingham said Dec. 20, two days after National Signing Day. “We’ll look for the best players available, and it may end up being portal. We’ll see what happens, but we got 90 percent of it done with just a couple spots left.”
The potential for immediate help via the transfer portal also applies to the secondary. Juniors Jaylon Johnson and Javelin Guidry are both headed to the NFL draft. Julian Blackmon, Terrell Burgess, Josh Nurse and Tareke Lewis are all seniors.
There is an abundance of young guys and newcomers to compete for cornerback and safety spots, but the majority of them are quite green. The attention during spring practice will quickly descend upon four-star 2020 recruit Clark Phillips III, the highest-rated recruit ever to commit to the Utes according to the 247sports.com composite.
Phillips is coming to Salt Lake City with his natural position being nickel, where Guidry became a two-time All-Pac-12 selection. It makes sense for defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah to give Phillips a long look at moving outside, but either way, the one-time Ohio State commit will challenge for immediate playing time.
Two things to keep an eye on in terms of safeties as spring ball looms.
Will converted quarterback Jason Shelley stick with it after switching to safety during bowl prep? Shelley saw the field against Texas, but if he wants to play quarterback, it will not be with the Utes.
“Coming from the offense, I think I have an advantage knowing what offenses try to do,” Shelley said last month during bowl prep. “That’s helped me ease into the defensive side.”
Additionally, Utah lost R.J. Hubert to a season-ending leg injury against Oregon. If Whittingham knows that Hubert might not be ready for training camp in August, does that give the Utes even more reason to hit the transfer portal?
As for Anae, like Moss, the type of production he produced is not easily replaced. Anae had 13 sacks in 2019, finishing his career with a school-record 30. That defensive end spot is up for grabs, while both tackles, John Penisini and Leki Fotu, were also seniors.
The right side of the line has not only experience, but starts, on its resume. A junior in 2020, Mike Tafua has played in 25 games across two seasons, including 13 starts in 14 games and an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection in 2019. Tafua is versatile enough to play either defensive end spot, so with Anae departed, he would appear to be a candidate to move from right end to left end to fill Anae’s vacancy.
Part of the reason that makes sense is because Tafua’s backup on the right side, Maxs Tupai, played in 14 games as a redshirt junior and has played in 31 for his career. Tupai just hasn’t had a chance to be the full-time starter, given the experience that has been ahead of him throughout his career.