SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s first answer to a question at Pac-12 Media Day may have summed up expectations for the Utes in 2018.
“I think we've got a lot going for us coming this fall,” he said.
Whittingham added that the Utes have a good situation at quarterback, running back and four returning starters on the offensive line. He also noted talented kids on defense and solid special teams.
Besides the positives, Whittingham acknowledged there were also some question marks — inexperienced receivers and the graduation of the top two tight ends.
“So we have new faces there,” Whittingham said. “But we've got a lot of guys that are very focused and I really like the attitude and just the demeanor of this football team.”
Flash forward to the end of fall camp. Whittingham, whose team was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South in the conference’s preseason media poll, continues to exude confidence.
“We’re in as good a shape as we’ve ever been, particularly since joining the Pac-12, as far as depth and just sheer athletes on the team,” Whittingham said.
The Utes return 18 starters from a team that went 7-6 last season. A 3-6 mark in Pac-12 play included narrow setbacks to Stanford (23-20), USC (28-27) and Washington (33-30). The latter two were on the road.
“I thought we were a pretty good team last year,” said Whittingham, who referenced the close games, adding that they could have gone either way. “So I’m not sure that we had a dip last year in talent. We just didn’t win the games that we could have won.”
Utah’s bid to fix the latter and win an outright Pac-12 South title for the first time is laced with storylines.
• How will the offense fare in its second season under offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and starting quarterback Tyler Huntley?
• Can the defense once again reload up front?
• Will a difficult schedule prove too challenging?
Positive responses to the questions are enhanced on several fronts. The return of sophomore receiver Britain Covey from a mission is a plus for the offense and special teams. Gary Andersen’s return to the coaching staff after nine years away as a head coach is a bonus for the defense.
The Utes open the season Thursday night at home against Weber State. They do so with optimism in all three phases of the game.
Huntley is back for his junior season. He’s bigger, stronger and faster than last year when he led the Utes in passing (2,411 yards) and was second in rushing (537 yards).
After missing three games because of injury in 2017, Huntley has bulked up his 6-foot-1 frame to around 200 pounds. That doesn’t include the full confidence he carries around. That’s been a constant.
Huntley didn’t mince words when asked about the offense this season.
“Everyone’s going in healthy and it’s going to be good,” he predicted.
Junior running back Zack Moss returns for an encore after rushing for 1,173 yards last season. Four starters that created space for Moss are back on the line as well — Jackson Barton, Lo Falemaka, Jordan Agasiva and Darrin Paulo.
Experience isn’t as plentiful at receiver. However, Covey did have a team-high 43 catches in 2015. No other target, though, has more than 30 receptions in a season. That’s expected to change with receivers like juniors Demari Simpkins and Siaosi Mariner, as well as sophomore Samson Nacua, upping their game and getting more opportunities. At tight end, junior Jake Jackson is the projected front-runner.
The offense, Huntley explained, is maturing.
"Our players are trusting each other and we are all going out and trying to execute the play,” he said. “We are just an older team this year. We know that we can't make as many mistakes as we made when we were younger."
It’s a progression.
“With Troy going into his second year with the offense, we feel good about the direction the offense is heading,” Whittingham said.
Senior linebacker Chase Hansen, who is making a full-time switch from safety, has a real good understanding of how Utah’s defense operates. He’s been there, done that.
As such, Hansen is well versed in how this season’s defense is going to look.
“We’re real smart and we’re real athletic and we’ve got a lot of ballhawks,” Hansen said. “We’ve just got to stay healthy and do our job week-by-week and be prepared every single week. We don’t want to get too far ahead of us. We know there’s a lot of really good teams we’re playing so we’ll see.”
Utah’s defense, though, enters the season well equipped for the challenges ahead. The secondary has drawn continual praise from Whittingham. Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP Julian Blackmon, a junior, and sophomore Jaylon Johnson headline a strong cornerback group. Sophomore Javelin Guidry and junior college transfer Tareke Lewis are the front-runners at nickel back. Seniors Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard lead a solid corps of safeties.
Hansen and fellow senior Cody Barton top the linebackers. Key reserves include junior Donavan Thompson and BYU transfer Francis Bernard.
Up front, junior defensive end Bradlee Anae is the lone returning starter. Utah’s line, however, has a history of reloading not rebuilding. Junior Leki Fotu is joined in a tackle rotation that features sophomores Hauati Pututau and Pita Tonga, in addition to junior John Penisini. Candidates for the right end spot, opposite of Anae, include freshman Mika Tafua, junior Caleb Repp and sophomore Maxs Tupai.
Utah is making history this season. The Utes are the first team to have winners of the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards on the same roster. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay give them that distinction.
The senior captains, who are also preseason Associated Press All-Americans, headline a special teams unit that also includes explosive kick returners like Blackmon and Covey, as well as punt returners like Simpkins.
Gay noted the importance Whittingham places on special teams.
“That’s the one-third that can win a ballgame,” said Gay, who added that top players on offense and defense are used on special teams. “So it’s something we take very, very seriously.”