Utah quarterback Cam Rising’s surgically-repaired right shoulder is closer to 100% healthy than it was at this time a year ago, so Kyle Whittingham last week made no bones about what he wants to see more of from his offense this fall.
The 18th-year University of Utah head coach wants more big plays on the outside, more deep balls from his fifth-year junior quarterback. That wasn’t so much of an option last season with Rising 10 months removed from surgery. It is now, but there’s a key question attached to Whittingham’s request.
Who is going to hit on those big plays on the outside, catch those deep balls from Rising?
Collectively, the receiver room did not produce enough in 2021, a fact that fourth-year sophomore Devaughn Vele, the team’s projected No. 1 wideout this fall, was willing to admit.
“Last year, we had a great season, but the receiver group, I felt like we won in spite of us a few times,” Vele said Monday afternoon following the Utes’ fifth practice of fall camp. “I thought we could have contributed a lot more last season. That’s been how I’ve felt this offseason, and I think the rest of the group in the wide receiver room feels the same way. We have a lot of expectations upon us, but I’m confident we can do it.”
Vele, a former walk-on, enjoyed his best season as a collegian in 2021, finishing with 23 catches for 389 yards and a memorable flea-flicker touchdown at USC. Solomon Enis, a fifth-year senior, had 22 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown.
Vele and Enis finished No. 5 and 6 on the team, respectively, in receptions, which should tell you something about the year the position had. Slot receiver Britain Covey, now an undrafted rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles, led the team with 52 catches, but then the list gets into the tight end position, where Brant Kuithe had 50 and Dalton Kincaid had 36.
Even versatile running back Micah Bernard registered more catches than Vele and Enis with 26.
How and when Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig opt to take deep shots offers an intriguing situation for what was the No. 3-ranked offense in the Pac-12 last season. After all, Kuithe and Kincaid are back as legitimate pass-catching options for Rising and Whittingham appears intent on continuing to employ two- and three-tight end sets.
“Well, it is unique, especially in this day and age of football where the tight end is not really a part of everybody’s offense,” Whittingham said. “A lot of offenses don’t even have a tight end, but for us, and Coach Lud, and what he does, it’s a big part of what we do. When you’ve got the talent level of those two guys, you’re going to accentuate them even more. That’s the focus and the No. 1 objective and the job of the offensive coordinator is to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers. They’re two of our best playmakers.”
Added Vele: “Brant and Dalton are NFL-caliber tight ends, we have to feed them the ball, but one thing I felt is that we were too complacent with that. ‘Oh, it’s OK because we have tight ends that are good.’ No, we want the ball just as much as them because we’re just as good as they are. Receivers are playmakers. We’re supposed to be playmakers on the field, we’re supposed to make those catches that nobody else can. If everybody could catch the ball, they’d all play receiver, but it’s a lot different when you have somebody in your face and you have to make that challenging catch.”
Whittingham on Wednesday asserted that Utah has four or five proven wide receivers, and another four or five new guys into the mix, although only seven or eight will make the trip to the University of Florida for the Sept. 3 opener.
The list of four or five proven guys should include Vele and Enis, followed by some debate.
Jaylen Dixon had 56 catches for 932 yards and three touchdowns across his first two seasons in 2018 and 2019, but sat out 2020, then had just five catches in 10 games last season.
Third-year sophomore Money Parks’ one career catch is a 12-yard touchdown from Rising at USC last season, while redshirt freshman Makai Cope could also factor in.
In terms of new guys, junior college transfer Tiquan Gilmore and true freshmen Tao Johnson and Sidney Mbanasor have all drawn praise from coaches.
“We have big shoes to fill, especially with Britain Covey leaving, but I’m not worried too much,” Vele said. “We have a lot of depth, I think the most depth at wide receiver in a long time at Utah.”
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