College football is (supposed to be) back! The Arizona Wildcats will be in Salt Lake City on Saturday to begin their conference-only schedule. Kickoff is scheduled for at 2:30 p.m. MST and will televised on ESPN2.
There are many questions surrounding Arizona’s team, but the same can be said about Utah.
Here’s a first look at the Utes.
- 2019 Record: 11-3 (8-1 Pac-12), South Division champions for the second consecutive season
- Key Offensive Players: Jake Bentley (QB), Britain Covey (WR), Brant Kuithe (TE), Nick Ford (OT), Simi Moala (OT)
- Key Defensive Players: Mika Tafua (DE), Devin Lloyd (LB), Clark Phillips III (CB)
Coach Kyle Whittingham is probably best known for his ability to build a team from the inside out. In other words, he does a tremendous job at recruiting linemen on both sides of the ball. He is also known for putting together stout defenses.
The Utes are coming off a two-year stretch where they won a pair of Pac-12 South championships and combined for a 14-4 conference record in the regular season. They weren’t able to the win the conference championship in either year but it has still been a very impressive run.
So what now?
A lot of the success seen over the past two seasons was driven by the maturation of key players on both sides of the ball. Not only was this proven by the team results but it was further proven in the 2020 NFL Draft, where there were seven Utes selected.
That count does not include quarterback Tyler Huntley, who was coming off first team all-conference honors but went undrafted, nor does it include defensive players Francis Bernard, Javelin Guidry, Josh Nurse or offensive tackle Darrin Paulo, all of whom signed as undrafted free agents as well.
All of this is to say that Whittingham has his work cut out for him in backfilling production for 12 NFL-caliber players.
Starting with the offense, graduate transfer Jake Bentley is the heir apparent for Huntley. During his time at South Carolina, Bentley started in 33 games and compiled a 19-14 record while maintaining a winning record in the SEC at 10-7.
Running back is not as clear cut. Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore will likely carry most of the load as they combined for 457 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 108 carries in 2019.
There’s certainly more familiarity with the pass catchers as Britain Covey, Brant Kuithe and Bryan Thompson return. Covey was injured for most of 2019, which ultimately led to a redshirt opportunity. However, Kuithe and Thompson were the first and second leaders in receiving yards, respectively. Also, Kuithe led the team in receptions (34) and touchdown catchess (6).
Going back to Whittingham’s inside-out approach, this brings us to the offensive line. The Utes have three linemen returning off all-conference honorable mentions. Tackles Nick Ford and Simi Moala and center Orlando Umana will likely make Bentley’s transition nice and smooth.
The aforementioned stat regarding Utes that went onto the NFL were largely from the defense. In fact, nine of those NFL-worthy players are defensive players. There are a couple bright spots, however.
First, linebacker Devin Lloyd is returning after leading the team with tackles in 91, which earned him an honorable mention nod in the conference. Next, Utah was able to sign its highest-rated recruit in program history in cornerback Clark Phillips III.
Finishing the inside-out approach thought, the Utes will have size and experience upfront (as always). Mika Tafua is the headliner of the group, but the projected starting front four combine for 108 games played throughout their career. You have to imagine that in-game experience coupled with practicing with the likes of former Utes Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu leaves this group in a comfortable position.
The line for this game opened at Utah -14.5, which should tell you plenty. The Utes are also riding a four-game win streak in the series. Both teams have several of unanswered questions but if you’re a Ute—not a youth, My Cousin Vinny reference—you probably like your chances given the recent track record.