SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah seniors are honored before Saturday night’s home game against Colorado, about 47,000 fans will get a chance to show their appreciation for one of the best graduating classes the school and state have ever seen on the gridiron.

This class — featuring stellar players from Salt Lake County’s Herriman High to Broward County’s Hallandale High — is so special Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has even pleaded with the crowd to show up early for the 5:30 p.m. kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Mother Nature might’ve winked an eye at the Utes by whipping up a batch of snow for three of the seniors who brought their talents from Miami.

It might sound like an odd pairing, but snow actually helped former assistant coach Dennis Erickson and the Utes pull off this unlikely recruiting coup.

A snowmobiling adventure on their recruiting trip to the home of the self-proclaimed “Greatest Snow on Earth” in 2015 helped convince Zack Moss that Utah was indeed the place to attend college. After decommitting from the University of Miami, Moss joined high school teammates Tyler Huntley and Demari Simpkins at another school that sometimes refers to itself as “The U.”

“In the grand scheme of things, the snowmobiling was actually a big thing,” Moss admitted. “It was my first time seeing snow. Having fun in the snow like that the first time, being an 18-year-old kid, will do some things to you. I’m happy that snowmobile trip definitely pushed me a little bit more.”

Those who follow the Ute football team are probably even happier.

Huntley was also intrigued by the snow, which, not surprisingly, he never saw in the Sunshine State. As a freshman, he posted a fun video of him jumping sprawled out into the snow on campus between classes. And even though the Floridian laughs about getting sick for a week from taking that frosty plunge into the Wasatch Front’s white powder, he was also drawn to a climate and culture that couldn’t be more different than the sun and sand in the South Beach area.

Simpkins added, “Once we saw snow, we knew what time it was.”

Mountain Time.

Time to bundle up, too.

That’s why it’s almost poetic for the three talented student-athletes — the “Hallandale Trio,” as they’re lovingly called because they all played at the same high school — to experience a winter wonderland leading up to their final football game on the Wasatch Front.

For the record, Moss says he still loves snowmobiling and has shredded the trails a few more times, but he’s kind of over dealing with snow, especially when driving mobiles of the auto variety. Simpkins laughed when asked if he’s still digging snow — and the fact that he occasionally has to actually dig snow has cooled his opinion on the fluffy stuff. “I don’t like it at all. I used to love it a lot, but now I don’t.”

Huntley still likes snow but admitted the novelty has worn off. “I like seeing it,” he told the Pac-12 Network for a TV feature, “but you’re not going to catch me in it.”

Despite braving an occasional blizzard and icy car windows, the Hallandale Trio has fallen even more in love with their college surroundings and football program. They have no regrets about migrating northwest for the colder months. They’ve also gained thousands of fans thousands of miles away from home while making significant contributions to Utah’s team over the past four years. (True confession: Huntley does miss the Jamaican food, fried chicken and barbecue options his hometown has to offer.)

It helped all three to have each other along for this wild ride.

“Definitely,” Huntley said. “It made it easier to adjust having somebody that you know.”

*****

Without Huntley, Moss and Simpkins, the Utes certainly wouldn’t be 10-1, ranked sixth in the nation and on the verge of earning a return trip to the Pac-12 championship game and possibly qualifying for the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff.

“Those three guys are terrific. They have been just great teammates and team players since they got here from Day 1,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said earlier this season after Huntley, Moss and Simpkins each rushed for a touchdown in a win over Northern Illinois, marking the second time they’d all scored in the same game.

“They are disciplined, they are talented and they work hard. I can’t say enough good things about those guys,” Whittingham added. “They are all graduating this December. They have done everything we have hoped they would and more since they have been here.”

Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (7) runs in a long pass from quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) for a touchdown, putting the Utes up 21-0 over the Arizona Wildcats after the PAT, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. | Spenser Heaps

Simpkins, a 5-foot-10 receiver, has played in all 50 games since arriving on campus, hauling in 1,095 receiving yards and scoring six touchdowns while also occasionally filling in on return action. He’s tied with tight end Brant Kuithe for most receptions (26). According to Huntley, Simpkins, the least-heralded of the three, does a lot behind the scenes to help the team succeed and younger players progress.

“He’s a hard worker. He does everything right,” Huntley said of Simpkins. “He’s a great leader, but he’s not talking much. He does (it) by example. He’s a senior receiver in the receiver room. A lot of kids look up to him. He does a good job by doing everything right.”

Huntley, a 6-foot-1 quarterback, is a three-year starter and has evolved into a candidate for the Heisman Trophy (among other prestigious awards) thanks to an incredibly efficient senior season. After missing the final five games of his junior campaign with a broken collarbone, the versatile QB emerged as a stronger athlete, a more precise passer and a commanding leader as an upperclassman. One of five Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalists, Huntley has passed for 2,608 yards and 14 touchdowns while completing a remarkable 75% of his passes and throwing just two interceptions this season.

“Tyler Huntley is playing absolutely the best football of his career right now here at the University of Utah. He’s the one who everybody looks to. … He’s just doing so much for this football team. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a self-made guy.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

He even has his own hashtag — #HuntleyForHeisman — thanks to the Utah Athletics Department’s promotional efforts.

Oh, and he’s done much of that while dealing with a leg injury.

“Tyler Huntley is playing absolutely the best football of his career right now here at the University of Utah,” Whittingham said in a promotional video for his star QB. “He’s the one who everybody looks to. … He’s just doing so much for this football team. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a self-made guy.”

While Huntley established himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in Ute history, Moss rushed his way to uncharted territory. The 5-foot-10, 222-pound running back has used his rare combination of speed, power and field awareness to become the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,809 yards on 657 carries for an average of 5.8 yards per touch. The Doak Walker Award semifinalist has also racked up more 100-yard games (18), more total touchdowns (39) and more rushing TDs (37) than any other Ute.

Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) makes a move as Utah and UCLA play a college football game in Salt Lake City at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“When he gets to the huddle, I tell (Zack) I’m watching him,” Huntley said. “I tell him I’m his biggest fan because I’m watching him from behind live. It’s fun to watch them play every week.”

Like Huntley, Moss had his junior season cut short due to an injury and has excelled as a senior despite being banged up part of the time. He’s certainly made the most of his final season — racking up his third 1,000-yard season (1,158 yards) with 14 touchdowns — after deciding to return to Utah to earn his degree and finish out his career with his Hallandale friends.

The three have been together since Simpkins and Moss transferred from other high schools to join Huntley at Hallandale for their senior season. The standout players helped the Chargers advance to the Florida 5A regional final, but Huntley suffered an ankle sprain and their playoff hopes ended with a 51-46 loss to Orlando’s Bishop Moore.

Now they’ve got their team in prime position for another fun postseason run.

“We pictured this a long time ago, man — basically told the future,” Simpkins said earlier this fall. “We knew what we wanted to do, and coming into this season, we’re doing what we wanted to do.”

*****

Moss had already committed to play for the Hurricanes when Miami’s former coach, who’d worked his way around the country and into a position as Utah’s assistant head coach/running backs coach, decided to mine his old stomping grounds for talent.

Erickson visited Hallandale High during its spring practices ahead of the trio’s senior season in high school and offered scholarships on the spot to all three of the bright prospects. Huntley went on to be named the 2015 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year — having passed for 9,053 yards and 106 touchdowns as a four-year starter — and attracted all sorts of recruiting attention. It was too late for the other schools, though.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley, of Hallandale, Florida, is posting some impressive passing numbers in South Florida this fall. The Ute recruit plans to finish high school early and enroll at the U. this January. | Courtesy Huntley family

During their recruiting visit to Utah, the three attended the then-24th-ranked Utes’ game against Utah State — a 24-14 win over the Aggies at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Miami players were impressed by the team, the coaches, the crowd and, yeah, the snowmobiling.

Simpkins was the first to commit. Huntley gave his verbal commitment about a half-hour later.

“I just wanted something different. I wanted to start fresh,” Simpkins said. “Being from down South, see something different. I always knew there was more to life outside of Florida. I just wanted to get away and start something big here, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Moss, smitten by snowmobiling and what the Utes had to offer, followed suit a couple of weeks later. (He still marvels at the limited number of policemen in Salt Lake City compared to Miami and how drivers will stop to let you cross the street in Utah, by the way.)

“We all had individual goals and we definitely all wanted to come up here as friends and brothers and do something very special,” Moss said. “Making that final stretch, we’re right there at it.”

Co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson yells instructions during University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 5, 2013. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

It boosted Utah’s recruiting efforts that the three prospects were familiar with the well-known Erickson and trusted the distinguished and well-traveled coach who’d won two national championships while coaching at that U. between 1989-94.

“They were really solid. They had great families. They were great people. The coach at Hallandale (Dameon Jones) was a good friend of mine,” Erickson said. “When they were committed, they were committed. There was no wavering back and forth. Not only were they good on the field, but they were solid guys that wanted to get a degree.”

Having walked in caps and robes this past spring during the University of Utah’s 150th commencement, Huntley (sociology), Moss (communication) and Simpkins (communication) will all officially wrap up their undergraduate work next month.

“All our parents were stressing that a lot, ‘Y’all coming way out here, you better get your degrees. It ain’t about the NFL,’” Simpkins said, laughing, while imitating his mom with a high-pitched voice. “I feel like that was very important, and I’m glad we got that accomplished also. We got a lot of things accomplished outside of football, and I’m just proud.”

Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) looks for a receiver as Utah and UCLA play a college football game in Salt Lake City at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Their alma mater is, too. The Utah Football program’s tweet about Huntley being one of five finalists for the Unitas award is prominently placed on the school’s website. And their current coach, who takes pride in the program’s high graduation rate (currently 93%), loves that these three student-athletes are equally focused on the student and athlete parts of that label.

“They’re all three just fine young men. They take care of their business. They all understand the value of education, and ultimately that’s why all of our guys are here — to earn their degrees,” Whittingham said at the spring graduation ceremony. “They’ve done a great job of doing just that. I’m proud of all of them.”

*****

Erickson isn’t surprised about the success the Hallandale Trio has had 2,500 miles away from home.

“One thing about Florida, particularly South Florida, football is important to those guys. I knew they were going to be good players,” Erickson said. “I thought they would. I guess that’s easy to say now.”

Now home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, after his Salt Lake Stallions head coaching job evaporated with the mid-season collapse of the AFL, Erickson said he’s been impressed by how early they contributed and by the devotion they’ve made to improving themselves in the weight room and by working with Ute coaches. He called Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig “an outstanding football coach.”

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig works with players during a University of Utah football practice at the Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“Offensively, they’re doing what fits Tyler, Zack and Demari very well,” said Erickson, who called Moss “as good of a back as there is in college football” and who likes how Huntley is throwing the ball downfield. “It turned out good for Utah and it turned out good for those guys. … They made the right decision.”

Simpkins called it a blessing how things have turned out.

The Utes are one win away from clinching the Pac-12 South Division title and earning a return trip to the conference championship game Dec. 6 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Having helped carry Utah to seven straight victories, they’re two wins away from a first-ever Rose Bowl berth at the very least and an invitation to the four-team playoff at the very most.

“God put us here for a reason. We are just taking advantage of all the blessings he’s giving us,” Simpkins said. “We’re taking it one game at a time, and hopefully we achieve our goal this year.”

*****

Moss said it “magically” worked out that the three little-league friends — part of a tight-knit group of about 12 football players — were able to play together as seniors at Hallandale. All the better that the magic followed them from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains.

“When we (were) back in high school, nobody really knew about Utah. Us three being here, we’ve kind of put Utah on the (map) for down South and South Florida,” Simpkins said. “Now everybody’s talking about going to Utah. Everybody’s saying, ‘Go Utes!’ and stuff. It’s kind of cool to see.”

Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) waves to fans after running for a touchdown during the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

While they could have an exciting grand finale in store depending on what plays out the next two weekends, the Utes are looking forward to the 2019 home finale and the Hallandale Trio’s final show in Salt Lake City.

“We wanted to be legendary. We wanted to make some history here,” Moss said. “All the things that have happened, we couldn’t have scripted or we couldn’t have wrote. We’re just grateful to be in this position right now.”

Don’t be surprised if thousands of eyes suddenly get sweaty during the pregame ceremony from a fanbase and football program that is equally grateful.

••• ••• •••

Utes on the air

Colorado (5-6, 3-5)

at No. 7 Utah (10-1, 7-1)

Rice-Eccles Stadium

Saturday, 5:30 p.m.

TV: ABC, Ch. 4

Radio: ESPN 700AM