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Which Position Groups Need to Improve for Utah to Claim the South?

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Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl - West Virginia v Utah Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With Fall camp officially in full swing, we’re just weeks away from seeing the 2018 Utes in action, and expectations are higher than usual this season. While USC was picked as the favorite to win the Pac-12 South division, Utah is looked at as not just a “dark horse”, but rather a legitimate contender to win their first division title since joining the conference in 2011.

​Historically, Utah has been looked at favorably in the media’s eyes (more on this here and here), and were poised to represent the South in the Pac-12 championship on more than one occasion, but whether it was a shocking upset loss, a la Colorado in 2011, or one of the many promising seasons that come to a screeching halt in November, the Utes have had a hard time breaking through to claim the division. The 2018 team looks to have all the right pieces in place, but what position groups need to be better to make it happen?

Quarterbacks

​Since joining the Pac-12, quarterback play has been middling at best. There were flashes of brilliance from Travis Wilson and Troy Williams, but both struggled to be consistent. Much of this may be attributed to a revolving door of offensive coordinators and different schemes from year to year, but with Troy Taylor back in the booth this season, incumbent quarterback Tyler Huntley has every opportunity to flourish and lead the Utes to Santa Clara on November 30th.

​The key for Huntley will be staying healthy. Through three games against lesser competition, Huntley looked more than capable, completing 72.07% of his total passes, throwing for five touchdowns and two interceptions. He showed promise on the ground as well, compiling 212 rushing yards on 51 attempts and adding three more rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, he was sidelined after suffering a shoulder injury against Arizona in week four, and missed the next two games. He returned to action against Arizona State, where he threw four interceptions and zero touchdowns, completing only 54.3% of his passes. He was also noticeably more timid on his feet, rushing on only eight attempts that game, before finally coming back to form in game nine against UCLA. It was then that he threw for 4 TD’s with a 68.2% completion rate, adding 93 yards on the ground and snapping Utah’s four game losing streak. Despite losing the next two games to Washington State and Washington, Huntley performed admirably (save for three interceptions against the Cougars) and showed a lot of promise for the upcoming season.

​Coming into 2018, Huntley is listed at 200 lbs, an uptick from the 190 that he measured in at in 2017 and has the added benefit of a year of experience under his belt. Troy Taylor has also emphasized his desire to see Huntley rush less, and make better decisions with the ball to help keep him healthy.

​In an interview with the Deseret News on March 15, Taylor was quoted. “You want to limit the amount of times he gets hit, but sometimes that’s the best part of your run game and you’ve got to utilize it,” later adding “We want Zack to carry the ball a lot more than Tyler, but Tyler will still have a role in the run game, but hopefully more RPOs and in power read, zone read.”

​Huntley’s sustained health and improved decision making are going to be vital to Utah’s success. Even with a stable of touted running backs, consistent quarterback play is crucial at this level and seems to have been one of the missing pieces keeping Utah from reaching a division title.

​While Huntley is currently the best option behind center, Jack Tuttle, one of, if not the most promising recruits in program history is waiting in the wings. Thanks to new redshirt rules implemented by the NCAA, players can play in any capacity for any amount of time in up to four games without losing their redshirt eligibility. This could be beneficial for the budding star, but the coaching staff would be wise to save him in case Huntley does once again suffer a prolonged injury. Throwing a true freshman into live action isn’t desirable, but considering Huntley’s history and knack for using his feet, an injury isn’t out of the question, and those four games may prove important later in the season.

Wide Receivers

​Darren Carrington was a difference maker for the Utes in 2017. His seemingly magnetic hands were a godsend in a season full of growing pains. Unfortunately, the Oregon transfer only had a year of eligibility with the Utes and just as soon as he entered the program, he was gone. It’s not often the Utes have a solid receiving option like Carrington, and to underline his absence, the man who looked to be this year’s number one option, Raelon Singleton, transferred out of school in January due to family reasons. This leaves the Utes with a relatively inexperienced core of returning receivers.

​Siaosi Mariner (formerly Siaosi Wilson), Demari Simpkins and Samson Nacua all return from last year, and with Carrington gone, should benefit from better ball distribution. All three boast a receiving average of over 10 yards last season, but on the flip side, all averaged less than three catches per game and accounted for one touchdown each on the season. Finding a number one option out of this group is going to prove important.

​Also returning is fan favorite, Britain Covey. Back from a two-year LDS mission, the undersized receiver is about as dynamic as they come. In his one year with the team, the 5’7” speedster showcased impeccable escapability and great hands, reeling in 43 passes in 2015, becoming a bright spot in a largely inept offense. If he can learn Taylor’s scheme and maintain the same athletic skillset that was showcased before his mission, he will be a critical member of Utah’s offensive plan.

​Joining the main core of returners is true freshman Solomon Enis. The four-star recruit out of North Canyon High School in Pheonix, AZ, turned down offers from a myriad of powerhouse programs including Penn State, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington to name a few. He, along with Tuttle, is one of the biggest recruiting grabs in program history. Again, the new redshirt rules will surely benefit this young talent, but if he proves himself as a viable commodity early on, it is certainly possible the coaching staff will move to burn his redshirt and play him full-time.

Defensive Line/Linebackers

​Utah’s d-line is always stout; it’s become a trademark of the program under Kyle Whittingham, and is respected and feared throughout the Pac-12. To say the line needs to improve seems like splitting hairs, but there was a noticeable drop in quarterback pressure last season. As a whole, Utah’s defense amassed 25 sacks in 2017, led by Bradlee Anae, who racked up 7. While 25 sacks are nothing to scoff at, it was the lowest total since the Utes joined the Pac-12 and a disappointing drop-off in an era where the entire campus was simply known as Sack Lake City.

​One move that should benefit the move is the addition of Chase Hansen at linebacker. The move from safety was a predictable one for many and seems like a more natural fit for the defensive stand-out. He’s an imposing force that will certainly strengthen an already daunting group. The key with Hansen, much like Huntley, is keeping him healthy throughout the season. Even after missing four games due to injury in 2017, he was still one of the leading tacklers on the team. A healthy Hansen backing up the line for a full season could be a massive benefit for the Utes after a slight slip from the position last year.

​Anae and right end Cody Barton return this season to their respective positions, and both have shown gradual improvement in their time on the line. Barton made to move from linebacker last season, so entering his second year at the position should only benefit him.

​On top of this is the re-introduction of Gary Andersen who returns to Utah after head coaching stints with Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State. He’s back to coach the defensive line, a position he held in 2008 when Utah’s defense stunned Alabama in a historic Sugar Bowl win.

​In the end, Utah has accomplished more with far less talent in the past, so even with a few inevitable holes in the system this year, Utah should easily stay in the hunt for the ever-elusive Pac-12 South title.