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Ute Insiders: Is undefeated season a realistic possibility for the Utes? (podcast)

Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) warms up before the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) warms up before the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

With expectations sky high for the 2019 Utes heading into Wednesday’s opening of fall camp, Ute Insiders Dirk Facer and Mike Sorensen discuss this year’s team and what coach Kyle Whittingham is doing to keep those expectations in check. Is an undefeated season a realistic goal or a pipe dream? What teams on the schedule present the biggest challenges for the Pac-12 favorites? What players — on both sides of the ball — will need to step up? That and more on this week’s special fall camp preview episode.

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Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Dirk Facer: On this summer edition of the Deseret News Ute Insiders podcast, we look ahead to football camp, expectations, predictions, all that and more on this edition of the Deseret News Ute Insiders podcast.

Welcome to a special summer edition of the show. Dirk Facer here with Mike Sorensen. Mike, football camp starts this week. The Utes have high expectations.

Mike Sorensen: Yeah, they sure do. It's amazing. It's still July, but camp gets underway in a couple days. And then it's four weeks to the start of the season. So it's coming up quick.

DF: Mike, they've been in the Pac-12, this will be their ninth year, first time they've ever been picked to win it. Are they worthy of that lofty expectation?

MS: Oh, yeah, definitely this year. I mean, a lot of it's because Utah's very good. But you have to admit the rest of the division is kind of down. So that's part of the deal. If they had some other strong teams, the USCs and UCLAs might be favored just because they're the name teams. But they're both kind of not quite up to what they've usually been. And so it makes sense for Utah to be favored this year.

DF: Does it surprise you that it has taken nine years for Utah to become a favorite? Obviously, they won the division in their eighth year, but to now be considered the team to beat, did you think it would take this long?

MS: Oh, you know, in some ways, not really. Because, you know, a lot of people, of course, those were maybe naysayers, would say they're not gonna make the Rose Bowl till 2046 or something, you know, right. Like, it's never gonna happen.

DF: Like Arizona.

MS: Yeah, they're still haven't right? And they've been in it for 40 years or something. So, yeah, not really, I think that maybe you thought maybe within 10 years they could be this way. And that's been a little less than 10. So, you know, I think it's not that surprising. And they're deserving of it.

DF: Well, you know, this is the ninth year, and every team in the South has won the South and been in the Pac-12 championship game, all six teams. Nobody has repeated, though. UCLA went to the first two, but they went to the first one because USC wasn't eligible. So maybe you can throw that out and say they weren't the true division champs that year. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't, it's debatable. But since then, nobody's repeated. Why do you think that is?

MS: Well, it's been a fairly balanced deal. You know, teams are up and down. I mean, Colorado really only had one good year, and that's the year they won it, and they haven't done anything since or before. So that was kind of a fluke, maybe. And the other teams, USC is always right up there, although they had a down year last year. But you know, that's just the way it goes. I think there's just a lot of good teams. And there's not really one outstanding, you know, like Washington's kind of dominated the other division and Stanford's been up there every year, just like everyone kind of takes turns in the South.

DF: And I think USC is the only team to win the Pac-12 championship game, the North has dominated that championship game. For years. Could this be the year that Utah can break through? They were considered the favorite at the Pac-12 media poll. But that's a little bit skewed because of the fact that Oregon and Washington received a lot of votes. So if you combined those votes, you could say maybe the North division champ is a little more considered the favorite. But do you consider Utah the favorite to win the championship, not just of the South, but of the whole enchilada this year?

MS: Well, they have a good chance at it. You know, the fact is that you look at last year, they were extremely close to winning against Washington. That fluke play just kind of, you know, killed them. That was it. And otherwise, it was a tie game. And they could have won that game. So you figure if they're that close last year, they're better this year, and Washington maybe isn't as good this year. Although Oregon might be better, you know. So the odds are they have a really good chance if they can get to that point to actually win it.

DF: All right, let's talk about X-factors. What Ute players should opponents not sleep on this season, Mike, is there somebody going into camp that you think people ought to watch out for?

MS: Well, I think maybe the linebackers, you know, everybody talks about the loss of two linebackers last year. Were very good guys. They both went to NFL teams, you know, at least temporarily one of them. And so, you know, these guys, Francis Bernard and the guy from Penn State, you know, they're both very good players. Manny Bowen. They could step right in and they might have a problem with depth, you know, at that position. But I think they are a couple of guys because, you know, the defensive backs are one of the strengths the team. The D-line is always one of their strengths. Everybody knows about the quarterback and the running back. Britain Covey, you know, the receivers, they got some good tight ends. So, you know, I think everybody's expecting good things there. But, you know, maybe they're not expecting things from linebacker where they might be better than people think.

DF: Last year Cody Barton and Chase Hansen were the top two tacklers on the team. So it's a big void to fill. But it looks like talent-wise Bernard and Bowen can live up to past expectations. The way they played at BYU and Penn State, respectively, they should be OK.

MS: Yeah, I would think so. You know, and then it's just a matter of how deep they are after that, you know, if they can have a lot of people. Because if someone gets injured, that might be a bit of a problem.

DF: Well, my guy that I'm thinking about is punter Ben Lennon. I think he's high expectations, at least internally, keeping the Australian pipeline alive at punter. And it seems crazy to talk about a punter as being an X-factor. But obviously with Mitch Wishnowsky and Tom Hackett and the guys Utah has had over the years, it's a position that's benefited the Utes greatly. So if he lives up to the hype that they're giving him internally, that he'll just be the next guy to step in, and very talented kid. That's my X-factor.

MS: Well, they need him too because the Utes have been spoiled at the punter position for going on five years now. Had the best guy in the league and the best guy in the nation a couple times. So yeah, I think that he's a guy that has the pedigree and everything else, being from Australia, and they know him. So I think he's one we'll have to wait and see. But he could be better than people are expecting

DF: Mighty big shoes he's stepping into, so we'll see how he handles that in addition to his talent. What are some other players, Mike, you think could be the keys to success? You know, if you look at the Utes, Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, Britain Covey are all coming off of injuries this year. And you got some holes on the offensive line they need to fill, you know. It's almost hit the brakes just a little bit. The Utes aren't completely loaded and healthy, they should be going into camp. But as far as the health is concerned. Any concern with those guys coming off of injuries?

MS: Well, there always is, you know, because some of these injuries — when you have an ACL that takes, you know, most of a year to get over and sometimes guys don't come back 100%. So, you know, it has to be a concern with Covey that maybe the first couple of games won't be back to what he was last year. But, you know, he's obviously a hard worker and should come back. And Huntley, I guess he's also apparently worked himself back into shape. His injury maybe wasn't as severe as Covey's. But you always have a concern, because you see these guys who never look the same after an injury. And you wonder why, but I think in this case, hopefully they'll be back and they'll be a big difference for Utah.

DF: Does Zack Moss have to rush for 1,000 yards for a third straight season for the Utes to be successful this year?

MS: Yeah, I think so. I think he was underutilized last year. Not everybody, but a lot of people thought that, especially early in the year. It took a while for Troy Taylor to kind of wake up and say, yeah, this guy's pretty good. We need to use him more than 15 times a game like he was in a couple of those early games, you know. And once he started having 25 or 30 carries, Utah did better. And of course he missed the last five games of the season. So that really hurt them. But 1,000 yards, these days, isn't that much. When you have 12 games? That's not even 100 yards a game and he's got to have a lot of 100-yard games I think, especially early on.

DF: And in that era too, Mike, he'd be the first Ute to do it three years in a row. Which is kind of a changing of the guard because Utah didn't have very many 1,000-yard rushers for a long time.

MS: That is a little deceiving because back in Tony Lindsay's days, wherever, they only played 10 games, or 11 games. And they play 12 or 13. But yeah, barring injury, he should be the leading rusher in Ute history, maybe by the middle of the season.

DF: Do they need guys to catch the football? Last year the only guy with more than 32 catches was Britain Covey. Is that an area of concern? With Andy Ludwig coming in, you'd expect the ball to be thrown a little bit more.

MS: Yeah, I think it's the total number that matters more, you know. If you have 10 guys catching 20 passes, that's great. You know, it was spread around a lot last year with Demari Simpkins and (Samson) Nacua. I think they had a lot of different guys that caught the ball. Then is it (Bryan) Thompson that's coming in — he sat out last year. And Solomon Enis only caught about a dozen but he was awfully good. And then this Thompson sat out, so he might come in. So I think they got a lot of guys. And then they had the two or three tight ends, (Cole) Fotheringham and (Brant) Kuithe, so I mean, those guys are very good. And they were just freshmen. So I think they have a lot of options.

DF: You know, talking about the offense and obviously the defense is the key to success. I mean, they've got — some people think — the best defensive line in the nation. So, you know, it's easy to say the defense might be OK, because they seem to reload every year and obviously with Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu as All-America candidates, they're strong up front. And then Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon back in the secondary, you know, they should be pretty good. And like you talked about, the linebackers. We talked a little bit before the show, Mike, about the kicking situation and how that might be a big key to success for the Utes. Right now, Jadon Redding and then Andrew Strauch, who transferred from UCLA, saw limited action in three years. They don't really have a Matt Gay in the system right now. I've heard they've been hitting the transfer portal hard looking for somebody, I don't know if somebody will be brought in during camp or whatever. But right now, that looks like an area of concern going into camp.

MS: Yeah, it really does. Because, you know, the kicker, that's another one Utah's taken for granted the last couple years is that Matt Gay was automatic. And he, you know, won the Lou Groza Award and, you know, that can make a difference. In these three-point games, you miss the field goal, you're going to lose those games, you know, right. So I think that people kind of maybe underestimate the importance there. And maybe the offense will be good enough they won't have to rely on field goals like they had to in the past. But definitely that's a concern. And we'll see if one of these guys can come through, because they need a good kicker.

DF: And it's interesting that punter and kicker, who sometimes are taken for granted, were big weapons for the Utes. And now they're big concerns for the Utes going into the season, just because of the fact that they lack experience at both positions right now.

MS: Yeah, that could just be one of those factors that makes it so Utah isn't as good as people think they're going to be just because the kicking situation in these close games that can make a big difference.

DF: Mike, you've kind of transitioned into the schedule now. Breaking that down, what do you think is the most dangerous game of the year for the Utes?

MS: I think definitely it's USC. It's the fourth game of the year, by logic should be 3-0 at that point. They've got a tough first game with BYU, but they should should win the second two for sure. But you know, it's a Friday night game. It's on the road, they've never won there, haven't won there in 103 years or whatever. And you have to remember that game we saw in 2015, were they were 6-0, 7-0, highly rated, they went down there and got their butts kicked, you know? Right. And USC was an average team that year. So that's the one where I think, you know, people might think they're favored. But USC is, you know, they're still USC in many ways. And Utah, you know, to have to go down there and that atmosphere, it's not easy. So if they lose that game that could maybe start them kind of doubting themselves and who knows if they can, you know, recover from it. But I think if they get through that one, that's going to give them a lot of confidence to keep on going.

DF: Any concern that it's a short week? Games obviously on a Friday, coming off a very emotional test from the boys from Pocatello, Idaho State, and Northern Illinois. I mean, Utah's not really playing any tough games leading up to that, is that a concern? And is the short week a concern?

MS: Not really, because I think, you know, actually, USC has the worst of it, because they play at BYU the week before, so they play a tougher team on the road. And Utah has an easier team at home. So I think that makes a factor of you know, these guys should be OK. You know, that's what they do for a living. You know, they play ball. So I don't think that should be that much of a factor especially since it's both teams. You know, if one team had an extra day that might make a difference, but Utah might have a little advantage just in the fact that they don't have as tough a game the week before.

DF: Mike, that's a tough stretch to open Pac-12. After they play USC, they come home and play a Washington State team that's getting a lot of love. A lot of people think that they might be a real dark horse. Be a contender for the North Division title. Is that two-game stretch may be the most pivotal stretch. If they open Pac-12 play 0-2 that's obviously a humongous hole to dig out of. I think they've done in their day.

MS: It is a hole, and they had to win that Stanford game just to get going again. But now, you know, it's been seven years since they beat Washington State, you know, they've been a tough team to beat. They haven't played them every year but they've lost four straight. So it's not like Washington State's a team you just put in the win column, because Mike Leach always has a good team. And they've beat Utah in Salt Lake, beat them last year. So you know, they've got a new quarterback again, and it's early in the season, that might help Utah a little bit. But yeah, that's gonna be one of the tougher games. If they can get past those two then the rest of October looks pretty good for them.

DF: And then November gets a little more challenging. They start out at Washington, have a bye, come home and play UCLA. And then they go to Tucson the next week. Are those three games a concern too?

MS: Well, yeah, Washington has to be because they lost to them twice last year. And they've beaten him but once out of seven or eight times in the Pac-12 era. So yeah, Washington's always good. And they're one of the favorites. And you know, that's going to be a tough game to win up there in Seattle. So yeah, I think the other ones, UCLA is you know, they should win that at home. In Arizona, though, they've had trouble with Arizona down there. They've lost a couple times when they shouldn't have and so that's gonna be a tough one, especially if they've lost another game before that. Might be a tough one for him.

DF: Well, and you know, this is the big cliché every year, but it still comes down to staying healthy. If they're limping across the finish line that game in Tucson can be challenging. UCLA and Chip Kelly, they came on a little bit at the end of the year, it'll be interesting to see if they're better than expected. And of course, that game in Seattle will be tough. But let's not forget the Utes have won in Seattle. So we've got the track record there. So then they finish up with Colorado. Pac-12 championship game, probably presumptuous to talk about, but how do you think the Utes —they beat Oregon last year. If they were to meet up with Oregon and Justin Herbert again, or meet up with the Huskies? Do you think they'll give a better fight than they did last year, even though last year you could say it went down to that fluke play. They were right there. But they did need to put some points on the board.

MS: Yeah, I would think if they could hold their opponent to 10 points this year, they're gonna win that game. And last year they didn't have any offense. So they only got three points. But it's just hard to say at this point, you know, how good is Oregon going to be? Oregon hasn't been the Oregon of five years ago, right. And they have this new coach, and he really hasn't got it going yet. And Washington is down a little bit from last year. So yeah, of course, if Utah gets that game, they should have as good a chance as they had last year, if not better.

DF: All right, Mike, I'm going to put you on the stage here with the spotlight, everything shining on you, what's Utah's record going to be?

MS: Well, you know, I actually put it in writing today in a column. And I said the most likely scenario would be 10-2. Just going by, you know, I think they can be 12-0, you know, if they get momentum going, they could win every game. But my only problem is those games at USC and Washington, they may have a hard time winning both of those games. And then it just seems like every year, and you can go back in history, that there's been one week where Utah just hasn't brought it for whatever reason, they've lost a game they shouldn't have lost, it's kind of a head scratcher. So that, you know, that might happen again, I would think 10-2 should be what they should be as a bottom this year. But that might be what they end up at.

DF: I agree with you, Mike, I think 10-2 is a very safe bet. And I think, like you said, the USC and Washington games are a concern because they're on the road against good teams. Washington State at home I think is a concern that can go either way and then I really think that Arizona game at the end of the year can be tricky, just depending on how healthy the Utes are. And, you know, Khalil Tate returns to being Khalil Tate, it could be a challenge. But the one thing I got out of Pac-12 media day is they're very confident. And I think they're thinking 12-0, but they're not going to say it publicly. I think if anybody does, Whittingham will be all over him. And but you know, I think the safe bet is 10-2. And that's a heck of a season for any team.

MS: Yeah, it is. And if they did get to 12-0. Probably haven't talked about it, they don't want to maybe, that they would have a good chance at going in the final for the college playoff. Because undefeated teams, there's only usually a couple by that point. And so if they could make it to that point, even with kind of a weak nonconference schedule, you know, they would have a shot at that. But that's a long ways out. And that's a lot of luck. And you can't let down any week, but that's just a possibility. But most likely, they're going to probably lose one or two games. And if things you know, go bad with injuries and stuff, it could be you know, even more than that.

DF: All right, let's jump to the postseason. This Utah team, we discussed this, has the potential to maybe reach the college football playoff, but at least the Pac-12 championship game and like you said, Mike, I think it probably comes down to the fact that if they put just even a small amount of points on the board, a lot more than they did last year, you know, another 10 points, you know, can make a big difference in a game like this. And then no fluke plays like Washington had, they'll be OK. But I kind of see them maybe going, best scenario, going to the Rose Bowl. Winning the Pac-12 and getting there, because I do think they'll probably get beat a time or two along the way. But if they don't, you can say the sky's the limit. But there's Alabama and Clemson at the end of the road for anybody trying to win a national championship and that might be a real tall order for anybody. Not just the Utes.

MS: Yeah, that'd be the ultimate if they could get to the playoffs. But, you know, they may end up in the Rose Bowl, which would be great. If they lose a couple games, they're probably going to go to the Holiday Bowl again, or the Alamo Bowl, you know, which are both good bowls. But you got to shoot for the Rose Bowl, at this point they've never done that. And then if they just happen to run the table, they could maybe go all the way to the playoffs. That's a long ways away, we'll have to see what happens before then.

DF: Mike, what's your final word before the fall camp? About these high expectations? Are there some things you want to see transpire?

MS: Well, I think people maybe underestimate the kickers, you know, if those guys don't come through, then they could lose a couple of close games that they've won in the past. And if a couple of these main guys get injured, you know, they've got some guys behind Zack Moss, but you know, they need him to stay healthy. And I think Huntley needs to stay healthy. And Britain Covey needs to hopefully have another year like he's had. So those guys are key on the offense. And then the defense, they're pretty stacked at the defensive line and the defensive backfield, and the linebackers need to come through. So I think they're gonna have a good year, and they should win 9, 10, 11 games and have a good season.

DF: I agree with you. And I think one thing to watch in camp is the offensive line, obviously, they're looking for two or three new starters up there. And obviously, if they can't block well up front, it's going to stagnate the offense a little bit. So I'm interested to see what Andy Ludwig does to counter that lack of experience up front and utilize the weapons the Utes have. They always say when you have a senior quarterback those are when really good things happen. So we'll see if that happens with Tyler Huntley this year.

Folks, we appreciate you joining us for this special summer edition of the Deseret News Ute Insiders podcast. We'll be back with you soon and thanks for listening.