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Utah football: Utes' receivers confident, determined

Wide reciever Demari Simpkins (3) runs with the ball during Utah's football practice in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
Wide reciever Demari Simpkins (3) runs with the ball during Utah's football practice in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
James Wooldridge

SALT LAKE CITY — Got confidence? Utah receiver Demari Simpkins certainly does. The junior, who spent time in the offseason working with NFL star Antonio Brown, says it’s important to have a mindset that you’re the best. Especially, he notes, if you’re at a skill position.

“Because that carries on to the field,” Simpkins said. “Once you have that in your mind that you’re the best, you’re unstoppable, or you can stop someone, that’s just motivation. That’s all.”

Simpkins insists such an approach has nothing to do with being big-headed or anything like that.

“That’s not me. If you know me, that’s not me at all,” he said, adding that’s just how he feels going into the upcoming season.

“I feel that our receiving corps, we’re the best in the game. Right now, that’s how I feel,” Simpkins said. “That’s how everybody should feel. Every team should feel like that, that they have the best.”

Utah’s receivers enter the season with something to prove. At Pac-12 Media Day in July, head coach Kyle Whittingham kind of put them on notice.

“I would say the group that needs to step up are the wide receivers,” he told reporters. “We have a lot of inexperience at wide receiver.”

After noting that the Utes no longer have last season’s top targets Darren Carrington II and Raelon Singleton on the roster, Whittingham continued his thoughts on the current state of the position.

“There are a lot of very good players in that group that are unproven,” he said. “That is, in my estimation, the biggest key to how our offense goes this year — is how the receiving group comes along and becomes and performs for us and contributes.”

Carrington (70) and Singleton (36) were the only Utes to catch more than 29 passes in 2017. The duo accounted for 40.6 of the team’s 261 completions. Top returnees in terms of receptions last season include Simpkins, sophomore Samson Nacua and junior running back Zack Moss with 29. Junior Siaosi Mariner checked in with 20.

Sophomore Britain Covey is back in the fold. He had a team-high 43 receptions in 2015 before leaving on an LDS Church mission to Chile.

Covey said he is “very confident” about the position group that he is now a part of.

“I feel like our whole entire group feels like we have something to prove this year. I’m excited,” he said. “I genuinely think there’s some guys on this receiving corps that are going to prove a lot this year, that are going to surprise a lot of people and have some big years. And it’s just nice because we have so many weapons that you won’t be able to key on anybody.”

Statistically speaking, Utah’s passing game didn't fare so well last season. The Utes were seventh in the Pac-12 in pass offense (249.4 ypg) and 10th in pass efficiency (132.3 rating). As such, they were eighth in total offense (413.4 ypg) and scoring offense (29.5 ppg).

Simpkins acknowledged that the group has some things to work on in camp. However, they are motivated to do so.

“We know that we’ve got to get better and we have got better — a lot better,” Simpkins said. “This is probably the most athletic group that we’ve had.”

Simpkins then predicted that this Utah receiving corps is going to be “special.”

The pre-camp depth chart listed Simpkins, Mariner, Nacua and sophomore Bryan Thompson as starters. Covey, senior Jameson Field and redshirt freshmen Bronson Boyd and Jaylen Dixon were also on the two-deep. Junior college transfer Derrick Vickers and true freshman Solomon Enis are working their way into the mix as well.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley said the offense is “definitely going to be OK” in the passing game. He noted that the receivers and quarterbacks have been working a lot of days — on and off the field — in film sessions and throwing the ball to ensure they have the necessary continuity.

“We’re going to be good,” Huntley said. “Last year wasn’t the best year, so why would we settle for those numbers? I expect big numbers out of my receiving corps, and it’s going to be a big year.”

Huntley added that what he really likes about this receiving group is the work ethic.

“Every time I want to go work out and throw, they’re right there with me,” he said. “They’re right there trying to catch the ball, and they’re doing a great job of just studying their plays and knowing what they’re doing on the field.”

Utah receiver coach Guy Holliday likes how things are developing. The Utes are more than halfway through camp. They open the season Aug. 30 at home against Weber State.

“I think we’re coming along good. It’s a work in progress. I have high expectations, and I always tell my guys, ‘It’s a compliment to have high expectations, to embrace it,’” Holliday said. “Some people see it as pressure. But, if people don’t expect a lot of you, what’s the purpose of doing it?”

Whittingham, meanwhile, is also pleased with how the group looks in practice, on paper and the way they’ve tested in the weight room and in such things as speed and the vertical jump. He acknowledged that the receiving group is much more athletic than they’ve been in a long time, if not more than in his lengthy tenure with the Utes.

“They’re working hard, and they’re talented,” Whittingham said. “We’ll see when we get the results. That’s going to be the litmus test, is when we play and see what kind of production we can get.”

And that, he explained, is what will determine playing time. Those who produce will be targeted to catch passes.

“Everything’s earned,” Whittingham said. “And so, no, there’s not going to be a set rotation unless all those guys deserve to play.”

Question is, does the receiving group need a go-to guy to lead the way? Carrington II was far and away last year’s leader in receptions. His 70 catches were the most for a Utah receiver since David Reed had 81 in 2009.

Holliday would prefer more of a group approach this season.

“I’d rather have four of them catch 70, to be honest with you. I think a go-to guy is so overrated to me because you can roll coverage that way,” he said. “If we can put three or four guys on the field that are all weapons, then we’re going to be a better offense.”

Covey agrees. He said it’s a much better offense that way,

“The cool thing is we’re not selfish guys at all. I couldn’t care less about having a certain amount of catches as one receiver, but I love having a certain amount of catches as a receiving corps,” Covey said. “Because when you spread it out it’s unstoppable to guard. So I don’t know this year if it’s going to be one go-to guy. There might be. There might emerge someone. But if there’s four go-to guys, in my opinion, that’s more effective.”

Taylor confirmed that the Utes have more depth this season. He added that they’ve got guys that can play. There’s speed and receivers on the inside slot that are quick and can create space. They’re also getting more guys that fit into the system a little bit more. That, he added, is always a bit of a transition.

“I feel good about them,” he said.

To have a chance, Taylor explained, the Utes need a mix of big-play guys on the outside and quick slot guys. Depth is also important.

“They don’t all have to be the same,” Taylor said. “For the system, you’ve just got to find the right guys at each position, which I think we’re doing.”

Utah’s receivers are both confident and determined.

“We’re out here working every single day, just getting better. We’ve got a lot to prove this year and I feel a lot is on the table for us to take and I feel like we’re going to do that,” Mariner said. “I feel like in the past some of us really haven’t been given the opportunity to get 30-plus catches in a season. I feel like now we’ve got the opportunity to do that, and I just feel like we’re going to take advantage of it this year.”

Mariner added that exciting times are ahead, following the confidence of Simpkins.

“I’m like right along with him. I feel we’re the best in the country, too,” he said. “We have a lot of guys with that type of attitude, and I feel it’s going to be good for us.”