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College Football Preview 2019: 8. Utah Utes

8. Utah Utes

Veteran experience on both sides of the ball and a favorable schedule makes Utes clear Pac-12 favorite

Zack Moss
Offense: Utah's offensive struggles at times last season were to be expected, as both QB Tyler Huntley and tailback Zack Moss missed significant time with injury. Both will enter 2019 fully healthy, and the Utes will be bringing in a new offensive coordinator, as Andy Ludwig arrives from Vanderbilt. Ludwig will hope to improve an offense that was still mediocre even with their top two pieces gone, averaging 395.8 yards per game (seventh in the conference).

Huntley was having a very productive 2018 before breaking his collarbone and missed the final five games. He put up numbers of 1,788 yards and 12 touchdowns and seemed to be really hitting his stride, leading Utah to a 4-0 October. Huntley looked great in the spring and seems to have a good understanding of this offense. He probably won't be an All-Conference QB, but he should be serviceable enough to get this team where they want to go.

Moss was also hitting his stride before he was also lost for the final five games of last fall due to a knee injury. Even in just those nine games, Moss was able to eclipse 1,000 yards, proving to be a powerful rusher that always fell forward. Ludwig loves to lean on the run, so expect Moss to be an absolute workhorse in this offense. With last year's backup, Armand Shyne, transferring it looks like Devonta'e Henry-Cole will get the chance to be the No. 2 option. Henry-Cole was hurt in last year's preseason but had a fabulous spring and has tremendous upside.

Health may also be a concern with Utah's No. 1 guy on the perimeter, as Britain Covey was hurt in the Pac-12 Championship Game and missed most of the spring. However, when healthy, Covey is a top-notch playmaker on the perimeter who is extremely sure-handed but can also be used in jet sweeps. Covey was the team's leading receiver in 2015 before going on a two-year LDS mission but looked like he never missed a beat, catching 60 passes in '18. Sophomore Jaylen Dixon looks to enter the fall as the second option, coming off a 589-yard season where he averaged 18.4 yards per reception. Along with veterans Demari Simpkins and junior Samson Nacua, Utah has a number of weapons for Huntley to play along with on the perimeter. 

Utah is going to want to run the ball early and often in 2019, so the offensive line will have to play a large role. Returning three starters is certainly a good sign, but losing both guards could hurt them running between the tackles. Junior Orlando Umana is going to have to play a crucial role as the starting center, but the star of the unit has got to be senior left tackle Darrin Paulo. Paulo made all 13 starts last fall and is entering his third year as starter, so he knows how to get the job done up front.

The Utes have struggled to find much continuity and stability on their offense over the last few seasons, juggling offensive coordinators and dealing with injuries. The hope is that some consistency will be established under Ludwig and that Huntley & Moss will stay healthy. If that happens, this group may not be flashy, but it will be highly effective and strong enough to put the Utes in position to win the conference.

Defense: Year-in, year-out, Utah doesn't have a lengthy list of stars on the defensive side of the ball but still produce some of the better defenses in the entire NCAA. They allowed just 19.4 points per game last fall, 16th best in the nation, and could be even better in 2018. 

The Utes got quite a win when Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae both decided to stay put and return for their senior seasons in Salt Lake City. They will anchor a defensive line that will be among the best in the country, with experience and talent throughout. Anae is their top pure pass rusher, coming off a campaign where he had eight sacks, and would demand constant double teams on just about every other D-Line. Fotu is going to be the key piece in the middle at D-Tackle, where he'll play alongside another senior, John Penisni. The end spot opposite of Anae has another veteran ready to play, junior Maxs Tupai, who recorded three sacks a year ago. All together, these four have proven they can get after the quarterback and stop the run, as they ranked fifth in rush defense a season ago and should only get better.

That defensive line will have to play well, as the Utes lose a lot behind them in the linebacker group. Cody Barton and Chase Hansen were perhaps the best tackling tandem in the school's lengthy history, departing with 231 total tackles. The situation got even worse when former Penn State transfer Manny Bowen, a projected starter, recently decided to leave the program to start a business. That will leave the Utes terribly thin but defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley has proven he can develop the position. Senior Francis Bernard is likely to get starting snaps coming off a campaign where he recorded 38 tackles and five tackles for loss. Beyond him, it's hard to know who will see the bulk of the snaps. Expect Utah to try and cover up this position as much as possible with their D-Line and continuing to run a 4-2-5 look. 

The great news for the Utes is that the back-end should be a strength, with three starters returning and some All-Pac-12 talent. The real star of the unit has got to be cornerback Jaylon Johnson, an elite playmaker. Not only is he great in man coverage, Johnson also managed four interceptions, with one of them brought back for a 100 yard touchdown against Stanford. A clutch pass deflection late in the Oregon game also sealed that victory, and Utah is hopeful he'll be able to make some more important plays for them in 2019. Behind Johnson is nickelback Javelin Guidry and free safety Julian Blackmon, two other crucial components to this defense. Blackmon really cleans up the back-end, compiling 48 tackles and swatting ten passes last fall, while Guidry is a versatile defender with seemingly limitless range. The only real question mark in the secondary appears to be strong safety, where the Utes must find a replacement for Marquise Blair, who was very helpful in run support. The good news is that senior Terrell Burgess has seen a lot of snaps over his Ute career and shouldn't have too much difficulties sliding into a starting role. 

Even with some legitimate concerns at linebacker, the Ute defense should be as strong as ever. Kyle Whittingham knows how to find players that fit his system and play hard, and having a number of All-Conference players with significant experience will also help. This defense certainly looks like it could be a Top 10 unit.

Special Teams: There will be some concerns on special teams, as Utah said goodbye to punter Mitch Wishnowsky and placekicker Matt Gay. Kicker got even more jumbled after the spring, as likely starter Chayden Johnston announced he was giving up football. That position will have to be sorted out during fall camp, as will punter. The return game will be solid, as Britain Covey has proven he can handle both punt and kick return duties.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (7-2 Pac-12, Win Pac-12 Championship)
Offensive MVP: RB Zack Moss
Defensive MVP: DE Bradlee Anae
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Francis Bernard
Impact Freshman: RB Jordan Wilmore

Five-Year Trend
2014: 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
2015: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
2016: 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
2017: 7-6 (3-6 Pac-12)
2018: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12)

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