Utah football’s offense could see more passing in 2020

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah football offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig speaks with the media on Friday, December 20, 2019, following a practice as the team gets ready for their Alamo Bowl game at the end of the year.

Kyle Whittingham will contend that Andy Ludwig does a great job of maximizing each of his players' strengths and what they do best.

Ludwig has 11 seasons as an offensive coordinator at five Power Five schools as part of a 23-year coaching career to help back that up, but that notion will be put to the test again this fall as he embarks on the second season of his second stint as the University of Utah’s OC.

Over the past few years, the Utes relied on a heavy dose of running the ball, namely from 2019 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Zack Moss. More specifically, 46.9% of Utah’s offense last season went to the run game, the fourth-highest percentage in a single season since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

Moss is gone, now a rookie with the Buffalo Bills, so the rushing attack is a bit of a question mark as Whittingham and Ludwig work this month to sort out the options, namely junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore.

Meanwhile, whoever wins the quarterback competition between South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley and redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising will have a big arm and a lot of veteran receiving options to choose from, both out wide and at tight end.

Might Utah’s passing attack figure more prominently than a year ago, when Tyler Huntley didn’t put up huge numbers, but was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country?

“If the strength of the offense is on the perimeter and the quarterbacks are up to task, then things will open up,” Ludwig said on a Zoom call with reporters Friday morning, hours before the Utes were scheduled to open fall camp. “Every year is different. We take a lot of pride in our ability to adapt and adjust to the personnel within the scheme. First and foremost, that will always start with the quarterback position, but there is no doubt that the depth and talent level at the wide receiver and tight end position is going to warrant the ball being in the air more than it was a year ago.”

A pre-camp depth chart is always to be taken with a grain of salt, but Utah’s initial two-deep indicates an abundance of pass-catching options.

Junior Brant Kuithe led Utah in receptions (34), receiving yards (602) and receiving touchdowns (6) a year ago as he morphed into one of the Pac-12′s elite tight ends. The projected starters at wide receiver, juniors Bryan Thompson, Solomon Enis and Britain Covey, have 85 career games played and 29 starts between them.

Samson Nacua has played in 40 games as he enters his senior season and junior Jaylen Dixon has 56 catches in two seasons to help round out the depth chart, but the biggest factor here is Covey.

After taking a redshirt last season, the byproduct of his surgically repaired right ACL not allowing him to go full speed following injuring it in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game, Covey showed up at spring practice in March looking like the dynamic slot receiver and return specialist he was before the injury.

“Brit Covey is like a guerrilla warfare player,” Ludwig said. “I’m not saying that Brit Covey is an ‘X’ receiver, ‘R’ receiver, slot receiver, outside, he’s everything. He’s going to line up as a running back, he’s going to line up in the slot, in the perimeter, he’s going to be moving and getting carries out of the backfield, getting carries on the fly sweep positions, things like that.”

Even as Ludwig gushes over Covey, his return this fall cannot be overstated. The Provo native has led the Utes in receptions in each of the full two seasons he has played, hauling in 43 passes for 519 yards as a freshman in 2015 and 60 passes for 637 yards in 2018 as a redshirt sophomore. Covey took a two-year LDS mission in 2016 and 2017.

Covey is also expected to return to his duties as Utah’s primary kick and punt returner.

“We talk about it all the time around here, it’s not about the plays, it’s about the players,” Whittingham said. “We don’t necessarily start with the scheme, it’s ‘What does that player do best, what does this guy do best?’ What are his strengths and then tailor the offense to that and those various skill sets, get the right guys the ball in space. We may need to throw the ball more this year, which is fine. There’s more than one way to get things done.”