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Utes added depth, experience at wide receiver, but will it translate into more explosive plays?

Utah has a good mix at the position, including veterans like Britain Covey and Solomon Enis, as well as two newcomers, Theo Howard and Munir McClain

USC wide receiver Munir McClain reacts to a play during a 2020 NCAA college football game against Arizona in Tucson, Ariz.
USC wide receiver Munir McClain reacts to a play during game against Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. McClain is one of two receivers to transfer into the program from Power Five teams.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

It’s still early in fall camp, but Utah coach Kyle Whittingham likes what he sees from his stable of wide receivers. He’s hopeful they will produce a lot of explosive plays this fall.

The Utes have a good mix at the position, including veterans like Britain Covey and Solomon Enis; as well as two newcomers, Theo Howard, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior, and Munir McClain, a 6-4, 210-pound sophomore.

“The receiving group has a whole new look, adding Theo Howard and Munir McClain,” Whittingham said. “(Devaughn) Vele’s healthy and Covey’s completely healthy. We feel like we’ve really helped ourselves at the wide position. It’s showing up out here.”

Oklahoma wide receiver Theo Howard warms up before a game against TCU on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Fort Worth, Texas. Howard is one of two receivers to transfer to the U. from Power Five programs.
Brandon Wade, Associated Press

Howard transferred from Oklahoma, while McClain transferred from USC. Both have the potential of making an immediate impact.

Before arriving at Utah, Howard caught 13 passes for 163 yards with the Sooners last season — including a team-high five receptions for 63 yards against Missouri State in his Oklahoma debut. Before that, at UCLA, Howard had 119 catches for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns. He caught at least one pass in 28 consecutive games.

McClain played in five games for USC in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury.

“Theo (brings) a lot of experience. A smart football player that understands leverage and understands defenses, what they’re designed to stop. So he’s able to play to the defender’s leverage,” said first-year wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis. “Munir is a big body who can go up and get the football. They’re just getting up to speed with the plays. They bring different things but it’s really good to have them in the room.”

Vele, meanwhile, is looking to emerge as a weapon.

Then there’s Jaylen Dixon, who entered the transfer portal in October 2020 but ended up withdrawing from the portal last February and returned to the Utes, something that had never been done before at the U.

The depth at wide receiver makes for intense competition, according to Vele.

Utah’s Devaughn Vele lines up for a play during the first day of fall camp on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Vele is one of many weapons the Utes have at the receiver position.
University of Utah Athletics

“What I love about fall camp is seeing what we have to work with. Everyone has a different skill set,” he said. “We’re trying to find those missing pieces and put it together in the offense where the chemistry is working together. That’s the biggest focus of fall camp. We’re all pushing each other to get better.”

Bumphis said the experienced players are assisting the others in getting better.

“It’s been good so far, with the older guys helping the younger guys get adjusted,” he said. “It’s created a lot of competition.”

Dixon has been in the program for quite a while but didn’t play last season. He is one of the receivers making plays in practice.

“He’s shaken the rust off,” Whittingham said. “He’s back to where he was before he had his departure.”

What does Whittingham want to see from Dixon?

“Speed up the field and consistency. Not only speed up the field, he’s a good receiver overall,” he said. “He’s really good on the crossing routes. He’s been in the program a long time now. He knows what the expectations are.

“So far through camp, knock on wood, he’s been very good. … He seems to be in a good place. He gives us that speed up the field, that vertical stretch, that we need. He’s one of the guys that can do that for us.”

Utah receiver Jaylen Dixon pulls in a pass prior to last season’s game against Arizona State.
Utah receiver Jaylen Dixon pulls in a pass prior to last season’s game against Arizona State.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Bumphis said this group has players that are capable of being deep threats.

“I think we do. A lot of that is route-running,” he said. “Playing receiver is all about deception. You want to get the DB to believe you’re going where you’re not. If you are a great route-runner, you can create separation, whether vertically or horizontally. We’ve got some really good route runners. We’ve got guys that can create separation. I look forward to the challenge.”

Bumphis spent the 2018 season with the Utes as a grad assistant. He likes coaching the veteran receivers like Covey and Enis, who have helped him along the way.

“I had some of those guys when I was here the first time (in 2018),” Bumphis said. “Having that experience, for me, I was learning on the fly; I was coaching effort and technique and they’re helping me with the plays. … It’s really good to have those guys just for the new guys to see how we do things.”

As far as ball distribution to the receivers this season, that’s to be determined.

“Everybody’s stepping up. It’s hard to say who’s separating themselves. Guys that are expected to make plays have been doing so,” Bumphis said. “The guys I had in the spring are picking up right where we left off. It’s right where we thought they would be. A lot of guys are making plays.”

Since the spring, Bumphis has noticed big improvements from his receivers.

“The biggest thing is play-making, confidence. They’re having fun. It’s a competitive group. I tell them all the time that play-making is contagious,” he said. “You see one guy make a play and then there are three or four in a row. They’re feeding off of each other’s energy and it’s been really fun to watch.”