Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2022: 4. Utah Utes

Cam Rising, Utah

4. Utah Utes

The Utes are no longer the scrappy underdog; they're the Pac-12's model program and the league's best chance to return to the CFB Playoff

2021 Review
Utah's 2021 season demonstrated that slow starts don't have to define your entire year. After crushing Weber State to begin the year, the Utes lost two consecutive road games to BYU and San Diego State. After the 1-2 start, they made a quarterback change and proceeded to win eight of their next nine regular season games, with the lone defeat coming on the road to Oregon State. 9-3 entering the Pac-12 Championship, Utah continued their hot streak, pummeling Oregon for the second time in 2021 and then going toe-to-toe with the Big Ten Champion Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. The 10-4 record and conference title was quite the statement considering the beginning of the season, but the Utes hope it was just the beginning. With a bunch returning on both sides of the ball and a wide-open Pac-12 in front of them, a first-ever CFB Playoff trip is the new goal in Salt Lake City.

2022 Outlook
Offense: After a slow start to 2021, the Utes decided to bench Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer and turn to Cam Rising to run the offense. Rising proved he was more than up for the job, throwing for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns, while completing nearly 64 percent of his passes. He's now the unquestioned starter entering 2022 and one of the top signal-callers in the league.

Utah's running back situation was thrown into disarray prior to 2021 after the tragic passing of budding superstar Ty Jordan. Much like the quarterback play, things started slow, but former Cincinnati transfer Tavion Thomas emerged down the stretch. He finished with 1,108 yards and set a school record 21 rushing touchdowns, even after dealing with some fumble issues early on. He's back to lead a rushing attack that also features sophomore Micah Bernard and junior Chris Curry. Bernard went for 523 as the third-string back last fall and should offer a nice change-of-pace, while Curry began his career at LSU and is ready for more.

Losing longtime wide out Britain Covey is a significant hit for the Utes. Covey wasn't your traditional No. 1 receiver, but he was an incredibly playmaker who also made his presence felt on special teams. Now that he's gone, Utah needs somebody else to step up at the receiver position.

The two leading candidates have got to be senior Solomon Enis and sophomore Devaughn Vele, who finished fourth and sixth on the team in receiving a year ago. Enis has flashed upside for years at this point, but is 2022 the year it finally all comes together? Vele has the higher ceiling and offers this offense a much-needed deep threat, but he has to become more consistent. Senior slot receiver Jaylen Dixon and rising sophomore Money Parks will also hope to capitalize on more opportunities on the outside.

While the Utes are hopeful one of the receivers can step up in a big way, it will likely be another year of relying heavily on their tight ends. Fortunately, they are blessed with a John Mackey favorite in Brant Kuithe, as well as a capable sidekick in Dalton Kincaid. Kuithe totaled 611 yards despite missing several games in 2021 and should be a key piece of the offense once more, while Kincaid is a monster in the red zone, hauling in eight touchdowns last year.

The offensive line loses a pair of important names in center Nick Ford and tackle Bamidele Olaseni, but it still has a chance to be among the Pac-12's best. Three starters are back, and there is plenty of depth and experience to go around. Guards Keaton Bills and Sataoa Laumea open up running lanes on the interior, while junior tackle Braeden Daniels is likely to move from right tackle to the left side. Overall, it's an extremely physical, gritty group that personifies the type of culture and program head coach Kyle Whittingham has worked hard to build in Salt Lake City.

There's nothing super flashy about what Utah does offensively, but there's little denying it works. They'll pound the ball, take smart chances in the passing game, and methodically move down the field. There aren't any superstars on the offense, but plenty of playmaking to go around, especially if a fresh face can truly emerge at receiver.

Defense: Few programs anywhere in America are as consistently strong on the defensive end as the Utah Utes. In 2021, they once again boasted good numbers across the board, finishing third in the Pac-12 in total defense and top in rush defense. The 2022 group will be stingy too, even after losing one of the program's all-timers in linebacker Devin Lloyd.

It doesn't get much national attention, but Utah has sent 18 defensive linemen to the NFL since 1994. They sent one more this offseason, as defensive end Mika Tafua signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys. Tafua is a major loss, a relentless defender who notched 9.5 sacks in 2021, but the Utes have enough up front to replace his production.

Sophomore Van Fillinger was awfully impressive in his first full season with the Utes and looks ready to take over as the team's top pass rusher. He'll handle one starting end spot, with Stanford transfer Gabe Reid set to take over the other one. Reid is a veteran presence, starting 24 games for the Cardinal over the last four seasons; he should fit in just fine in this D-Line. In the middle, sophomore Junior Tafuna was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and should play a key role.

Lloyd racked up a lengthy list of accolades before becoming a first-round selection in the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Finding somebody to completely replicate his production is a near impossible task, but the Utes are awfully talented at the linebacker position. Junior Mohamoud Diabate was a big-time get for the program; he started 16 games over three seasons with the Florida Gators before transferring in for spring. He's not as well-rounded as Lloyd, but is an explosive defender who likely has an NFL future. 

The Utes are hopeful sophomore Karene Reid and the Calvert brothers, Ethan and Josh, can step up and provide support for Diabate. Reid totaled 45 tackles last fall and should be flying all over the field once more in 2022, while Ethan Calvert was a highly touted recruit ready to show what he can do. Freshman Lander Barton, the gem of the 2022 Class, is also likely to factor in somewhere.

The secondary was the defense's Achilles Heel in 2021, but there's reason for optimism entering this season. For one, the Utes boast one of the best cornerbacks in all of college football in Clark Phillips. After starting all five games in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, he asserted himself as an All-Conference player, with 63 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and two interceptions. Entering what will likely be his last season at Utah, he hopes to go out with a Jim Thorpe Award.

Outside of Phillips, Utah has plenty of other interesting pieces in the secondary. The other corner spot has seen a competition unfold, with sophomores Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn battling it out. Sophomore Cole Bishop was an Honorable Mention in the Pac-12 last season and should handle strong safety duties, while free safety is interesting. Junior R.J. Hubert is the veteran who has been in the program for several years, but the Utes added Illinois State transfer Clayton Isbell. 

The unfortunate reality of college football is that eligibility can only last so long, so losing program staples like Lloyd, Tafua, and Nephi Sewell is just part of the process. It's always difficult to move on from players like Lloyd, especially at a program such as Utah, but the coaching staff has recruited well and the program always develops on this side of the ball. I don't expect much of a step-back, as this should again be one of the top defenses in the Pac-12.

Special Teams: Special teams is typically a strength for the Utes, but they enter 2022 with questions at this spot. Kickers Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyes split time in 2021 and enter this fall in a heated competition. Redding is more experienced, a former All-Pac-12 pick, but he will be seriously pushed by Noyes, who has seen a healthy dose of action each of the last two years. Punter and the return game are also potential concerns, especially with Britain Covey moving on.

Bottom Line: Since taking over for Urban Meyer, Kyle Whittingham has taken Utah from a plucky Mountain West underdog to a legitimate Pac-12 power. He's overseen BCS and New Year's Six bowl appearances, conference titles, and plenty of NFL players. Yet, one thing remains missing from his stellar resume: a College Football Playoff berth. The Utes came awfully close in 2019, a Pac-12 Championship loss to Oregon away, and likely would have been in the hunt last year if not for the early losses. 2022 sets up perfectly as the year that they can finally break through and reach the four-team field. For one, the Pac-12 is wide-open behind him. USC is likely to improve, but is likely a year or two away from their ceiling, Oregon is breaking in a new staff, Washington and Stanford are rebuilding, and UCLA is good, but not great. Secondly, they boast one of the most talented teams Whittingham has ever seen, with a really good quarterback at the controls on offense and plenty of future NFL guys on both sides of the ball. Lastly, the program's momentum seems to be carrying them to something greater. They proved in last year's Rose Bowl they can hang with the elites of the elites, now it's about getting to the Playoff and showing it on the sport's largest stage.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Kyle Whittingham is tied with Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy as the second-longest tenured head coach in college football, behind Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. He took over prior to the 2005 season, and has since gone 143-70 in Salt Lake City, with 14 bowl appearances to his credit. The offensive coordinator is Andy Ludwig, who was Whittingham's first OC here from 2005-2008 before traversing the world of college football. He returned as OC in 2019 after several years with Vanderbilt. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley enters his seventh year in that role. He has spent his entire coaching career at Utah, beginning as a grad assistant in 2007 after graduating from the school in '04.

Recruiting Breakdown
Give Whittingham and this entire staff a lot of credit, they've elevated Utah's recruiting in a major way over the last several years. This year's group is solid, ranking 34th in the 247Sports Composite and coming in near the top of the Pac-12. Linebacker Lander Barton is the gem of the Class, a highly rated four-star prospect from the local area. Standing 6'4", 220 pounds with a high motor, he's going to be an absolute terror off the edge for years to come. He's joined by a pair of capable linebackers unlikely to see playing time this season, but two who have bright futures ahead. Justin Medlock is a Texas product, while the Utes landed Kaeo Akana from the state of Hawai'i. On offense, the Utes brought in a pair of quarterbacks, Nate Johnson and Brandon Rose, as well as a high upside tailback in Jaylon Glover. Glover's a nice pickup, an explosive 5'7" scatback who should add much-needed playmaking to this offense. One other name to watch is athlete Tao Johnson, who could contribute at several different stops. He projects as a wide receiver, but played plenty of QB in high school and may also help out in the secondary.

2022 X-Factor: Solomon Enis, WR
Even with Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid back to guide the passing attack, the Utes will need more from this receiver corps if their offense is to hit its ceiling. Now that Britain Covey is gone, Utah is hopeful 2022 is the year it finally all comes together for Solomon Enis. Enis has been with the program since 2018 and has started 44 games for the Utes. He's proven to be a productive option, but has operated more as a complementary piece than a true top wide out. The physical tools are there for him to be much more, he's 6'3", 205 pounds with a wide catch radius, but it hasn't completely come together yet. The opportunities will be there for him this fall, is this the season he fulfills his vast potential?

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Pac-12, Win Pac-12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Tavion Thomas
Defensive MVP: CB Clark Phillips
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Mohamoud Diabate
Impact Freshman: LB Lander Barton

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.