As Utes’ passing game looks for more juice, Mikey Matthews has stood out

The true freshman has earned praise from teammates and coaches for both his physical and mental toughness, even earning a comparison to Utes legend Britain Covey.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Mikey Matthews (81) runs for the Utes, in football action between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

After both the passing and rushing attacks struggled for the Utah football team in the opener against Florida, the Utes at least got the ground game going last week vs. Baylor.

Being able to move the ball through the air, though, remained a struggle — one the team hopes to in Saturday’s matchup with FCS program Weber State.

“That would be good to be more productive throwing the football. Coaching-wise, we can take more shots, give our receivers more opportunities to make plays up the field — we have been a little bit too close to the vest so far,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re 2-0, so I’m not questioning things, but in order to get more production, we’ve got to be willing to put the ball up the field more.”

Indeed, the Utes have beaten a pair of Power-5 conference opponents thus far, and have a good chance to make it 3-0 against the Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but it’s probably not sustainable to keep winning games while throwing for less than 200 yards, especially with the Pac-12 Conference schedule right around the corner.

Having a more settled quarterback situation should help, whether it’s Cam Rising or Nate Johnson.

But the Utes are also looking to get more out of their receiving corps. Because Money Parks’ 70-yard TD reception on the first offensive play of the season notwithstanding, it’s been a pretty nondescript group.

With one apparent exception.

True freshman Mikey Matthews.

“Mikey’s been a real good player for us. I mean, he’s been in that playbook all the time ever since he came up here in the spring. He picked up on the offense super-quick,” said Johnson. “Having a guy like him in the slot — he’s shifty, he’s quick, he’s shifty, he’s fast, so having a guy like him in the slot, putting him on those types of routes, getting him in the open field, getting them matched up with linebackers, it’s good having a player out there like him.”

There were two shiftys in there, you’ll notice.

Whittingham, meanwhile, loves a few other attributes about the 5-foot-8 Irvine, Calif., native.

“First of all, his toughness — love how tough he is. He is a tough kid,” Whittingham said. “The lights are not too bright. When he goes in the game, he’s not in awe, he’s not overwhelmed. He’s a baller. I mean, he goes out and makes plays.”

The statistical production is not exactly eyebrow-raising — four catches for 34 yards vs. the Gators, and four more catches for 48 yards against the Bears.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah receiver Mikey Matthews has been the team's most consistent wideout through the first two games of the 2023 season. Coach Kyle Whittingham said he sees some similarities to former Utes star Britain Covey.

But the context matters.

Matthews helped spark Utah’s 15-play, 88-yard go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, with three huge catches going over the middle that accounted for half the team’s receiving yardage on the drive — the first for 17 yards on second-and-15 from the Utes’ 17, the next an 18-yarder that put Utah into Baylor territory at the 38, and then a nine-yard gain up to the Bears’ 11.

Despite his diminutive stature, he has no apparent fear going on those crossing routes.

“I feel like I’ve always proven it, just because I have a rugby background. I played rugby for like 13 years,” Matthews said. “So just being able to just go over the middle is just a natural.”

The head coach was especially impressed when Matthews absorbed a thump on one of those catches, but maintained control of the ball.

“When Mikey Matthews made that catch — a tough catch over the middle — and hung on to the ball, that was a great catch. You talk about a freshman stepping up in a big-time situation. He made a few nice place tonight, and that was critical. That was absolutely critical,” said Whittingham. “… He’s taking shots and just pops right back up and comes back for more.”

The wideout appreciates the praise, but is hardly getting a big head.

Asked about the coaches’ penchant for sending him on those over-the-middle routes with an expectation that he can turn them into something bigger, he said he’ll happily take whatever comes his way, while also conceding that he has plenty of room to grow yet.

“I gotta get better at it, but right now it’s good,” Matthews said. “I mean, I’m getting the rock, so I can’t complain. Hopefully just keep producing.”

Whittingham, who acknowledged “bragging on him ever since spring ball,” echoed the idea that Matthews can get a lot better.

Not because he’s displeased in any way with what Matthews has done to this point, but rather because he sees enough potential in him to invoke a certain Utes legend by way of comparison.

“Obviously you can see his ability to make plays, so we’ve got to do a better job of utilizing him. He’s just one of those guys that comes in — a lot like [Britain] Covey was four years ago, six years ago, 10 years ago? — who’s ready and the moment’s not too big,” Whittingham said, joking about the amount of time the now-Philadelphia Eagles punt returner spent at the U. “He doesn’t have the deer-in-the-headlights look, he’s got that fire in his eyes, and he’s ready to go.”