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Utah Mid Season Report Card: Despite Hiccup At USC, Utah Grades Almost Perfect

Oct 17, 2019, 3:56 PM
Utah Utes players celebrate their 38-13 win over the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadiu...
Utah Utes players celebrate their 38-13 win over the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY, UtahΒ – The first half of the season for the University of Utah has been promising, but not a perfect 4.0.

After getting through their non-conference slate of games undefeated for the seventh consecutive year, the Utes fell against the mighty USC Trojans in their first conference game of 2019. Since then, Utah has been playing like a top 10 football team – dominating the likes of Washington State and Oregon State. Over the last two games, the Utes have only conceded 20 points. They have scored 90.

Utah is playing like a team on a mission. The players and their respective position groups have all shown moments of brilliance, although some are playing better than others.

With six games down, and at least six games left, here are the grades each group earned thus far.

Quarterback

Tyler Huntley has been electrifying, without having thrown an interception yet. The senior quarterback has completed 75 percent of his passes. He has thrown 9 touchdowns and is averaging 10.6 yards per attempt. His quarterback rating (QBR) of 86.5 is good enough to rank him 6th nationally.

Utah fans could not have asked for a better start to the season from their quarterback. The depth is also a plus, with Jason Shelley and Drew Lisk sitting behind Huntley if something unforeseen happens to the Heisman dark horse.

According to Pro Football Focus, Huntley is the most accurate passer in college football this season.

Grade: A+

 

Running Back

Arguably the strongest position group on the entire team. Headlined by Zack Moss, who, despite suffering a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a game and a half, has still been able to carry the ball for 521 yards this season. Moss is averaging 7.6 yards per carry and has found the endzone on six occasions.

His recent 91-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter against Oregon State was the longest run of his career.

When Moss went down against USC, many thought the Utes were in trouble. They were wrong. Devin Brumfield, Devontae Henry-Cole, Jordan Wilmore and TJ Green have all been spectacular for the Utes when their number has been called. The depth at running back is something rarely replicated in college football.

Grade: A

Wide Receiver

A lot of hype surrounded this group prior to the season starting and for the most part, they have delivered. Utah has had 17 different players receive at least one catch this season. Much like the running back group, the depth at wide receiver is no problem for Kyle Whittingham.

Bryan Thompson leads the group with 310 receiving yards, while Jaylen Dixon, Derrick Vickers, Demari Simpkins, Solomon Enis, Brant Kuithe and Samson Nacua have all got at least 100 yards next to their names.

Although it seems like Britain Covey is going to redshirt after struggling to return from a torn ACL, the wide receivers have enough talent and experience to overcome the loss of Covey. If there was ever a year to lose one of your more explosive playmakers, it seems as though this year would be the year.

Grade: A-

Tight Ends

Entering the season, it was looking like Cole Fotheringham was expected to have a breakout year. Instead, Brant Kuithe has been the leading target for the tight ends. The sophomore has 11 receptions for 207 yards (second highest on the team) and two touchdowns.

Fotheringham has four catches for 31 yards and a touchdown. Last season, the duo combined for 37 receptions for 417 yards and three touchdowns. But, that was under an offensive coordinator that didn’t use the tight end position as much as current coordinator Andy Ludwig. The blocking from the two as well as graduate transfer Hunter Thedford has been solid.

The ball has been spread throughout the wide receiving corps and not on one or two particular targets.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The O line was a big concern when fall camp began. How good will the 2019 version be after losing key starters to graduation?

When this season started, Utah had two freshmen and a sophomore starting on the offensive line.

The depth has been tested when Orlando Umana and Johnny Maea dealt with injuries early in the season. Despite all of that, the Utes have been solid upfront. Utah is currently first in the Pac-12 and in the top 25 nationally in total rushing yards and yards per game.

Tyler Huntley has only been sacked four times. Offensive line coach Jim Harding deserves a bulk of the credit for getting his guys ready to play every week and developing the depth of the offensive line.

Grade: A-

 

Defensive Line

The hype surrounding Utah’s defensive line has been living up to expectations. They were listed by national pundits as the top defensive line group in the entire country.

This season, through six games, Utah has nine sacks. Six sacks have come from members of the defensive line. Bradlee Anae is leading the way with four sacks, Mika Tafua and John Penisini have each added one.

When statistics are kept regarding sacks, they also count as a tackle-for-loss. Utah has plenty of TFL’s that were not sacks. Among the five key players on the defensive line (Anae, Tafua, Penisini, Maxs Tupai and Leki Fotu) they have 11 tackles-for-loss. Anae with one, Tafua with 1.5, Penisini has 2, Tupai with one and Leki Fotu has 5.5. Fotu has been rated as one of the top defensive tackles in the country.

Utah’s defense as a whole has allowed just 317 rushing yards, averaging 52.8 rushing yards allowed per game, which is second in the nation behind Wisconsin. A lot of credit goes to the defensive line.

Grade: A+

Linebackers

Some question marks surrounded the linebacker position after Penn State graduate transfer Manny Bowen quit football before fall camp began. He was supposed to be a dynamic duo with Francis Bernard, but Utah turned to redshirt sophomore Devin Lloyd and he hasn’t disappointed. He has 42 tackles, including 3 sacks, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and one interception, which was returned for a touchdown against Oregon State.

Francis Bernard has been sensational through six games for the Utes. The former BYU Cougar leads the team with 43 tackles, including 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one pass deflection and two interceptions. One pick was returned for a touchdown against BYU in the season opener.

Grade: A+

Cornerbacks

The cornerbacks have had an up and down year. While they have looked like one of the more formidable units in the conference at times, they have also been beaten pretty badly. Look no further than when Utah took on the USC Trojans and gave up 368 yards through the air.

Granted, their only defeat (both as a team and as a position group) has come against USC. Every other week has been impressive from the Utah DB’s.

Jaylon Johnson is the leader of the group, and for good reason. The senior from Fresno, California is a lockdown corner who has both the size and skill to eliminate opposing teams’ best receivers. Exhibit A came against Oregon State last week when the Pac-12’s leading receiver, Isaiah Hodgins, was limited to his worst statistical game of the season.

Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse have been impressive for the Utes (despite USC) and will continue to play a pivotal role as the season progresses.

Grade: B+

Safeties

Julian Blackmon’s transition from cornerback to safety has been a smooth one. He has been able to rack up tackles while keeping his cornerback skills sharp with interceptions and deflected passes. The Layton High School star has 22 tackles, 3 pass deflections and two interceptions. One interception was returned for a touchdown against BYU.

Terrell Burgess is finally getting his chance to be a regular starter for the Utes and has capitalized on the opportunity with 25 tackles, one pass breakup and an interception. He has a knack for knowing where the ball is and is using his leadership on the field.

Utah has seen a rise in young talent. R.J. Hubert, who has been utilized in three safety sets and as a fill-in for Blackmon while he was on the sideline. The sophomore has 14 tackles this season.

Grade: B+

Kicker

Utah’s kicking game has taken a turn for the worst. Although that may have been expected. Trying to replace Matt Gay is difficult, as freshman Jadon Redding is finding out. Redding, who has made six of his eight field-goal attempts, is yet to showcase the leg required to be a dominant college kicker. His long is 42 yards and came in the dying minutes of a blowout victory over Oregon State.

Redding lacks “pop” on the football when he makes contact with it. He also struggles with generating height on the ball. He has had a number of field goal attempts blocked because of it.

Andrew Strauch started the season as the number one kicker on the Utah depth chart, unfortunately, he lost that job after a missed 25-yard chip shot field goal against BYU. Since then, it has been all Redding who by no means has been perfect, but has been serviceable.

Grade: C

Punter

Ben Lennon has been thrown in the deep end and asked to swim. The true freshman, Australia native, had never played American Football before joining Utah earlier this year. His year has been okay, he has not made any big mistakes, but he has not thrilled the crowd in the same manner Mitch Wishnowsky did either.

As the season progresses, Kyle Whittingham and the Utah faithful expect Lennon to get better. Lennon’s 39.6 average on just 14 punts will hopefully go up as he gets more games under his belt.

However, it is always a good sign when your punter is averaging just 2.3 punts a game. It must mean the offense is moving the chains and scoring touchdowns.

Lennon’s longest punt came against Northern Illinois where he hit a 62-yard bomb. The leg strength is there, now it is just about figuring out how to be consistent.

Grade: B-

 

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