Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami
No. 14 Utah
2018 record: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Star seniors at QB, RB coming off injuries
Utah reached the Pac-12 title game for the first time in 2018. With most of its top skill-position talent back in the fold, the program’s sights are set higher in 2019.
While the Utes have a promising stable of wide receivers, the offense is led by two seniors: quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. Huntley, a playmaker who has completed 64 percent of his passes in his career, has started the past two seasons for Utah, but missed time in both with injuries. Last year it was a broken collarbone that kept Huntley out of action for the final five games, including the conference championship game loss to Washington.
Moss had 1,096 yards and 11 TDs in nine games before going down with an injury of his own. He will be relied on heavily in 2019, but exactly how the offense will look is a bit of a mystery. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham brought back Andy Ludwig to serve as his offensive coordinator after Troy Taylor left to be a head coach. Ludwig was Whittingham’s OC from 2005-08 and has had stops at Cal, San Diego State, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt in the years since.
At Pac-12 media day, Whittingham expressed confidence in Ludwig and said the players adapted well to their new coordinator during spring practice.
“Last time around, the '08 season, we were 13-0 the last time he coordinated our offense. I've got a great deal of respect for Andy,” Whittingham said. “We're very similar in the way we approach the game. There's a lot of compatibility there, and he's a meticulous, detail-oriented guy, which fits right in line with the way I played.”
Ludwig and the offensive staff will have a revamped offensive line to assemble. While three returnees have starting experience, there will be some new faces in the mix.
One of the best defensive lines in the nation
Utah’s 2019 defensive line could be one of the best in the nation.
Seniors Leki Fotu and John Penisini, both all-conference selections, anchor the middle while Bradlee Anae is the team’s most prolific pass-rusher. Anae, who joined Fotu on the Pac-12’s first-team defense, combined for 86 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Max Tupai, a junior, will likely line up opposite Anae as the starter at end while Mika Tafua (7.5 TFL, 2 sacks as a freshman) and others rotate in.
The secondary should be strong, too, with the return of Jaylon Johnson at corner and Julian Blackmon making the move to free safety. Johnson emerged as one of the conference’s best last fall while Blackmon, a 27-game starter at corner, has added “15 or 20 pounds” to make the switch, Whittingham said.
The biggest question mark on the defense is linebacker following the graduation of Cody Barton and Chase Hansen, who combined for 230 tackles last fall. BYU transfer Francis Bernard will hold down one starting spot, but another projected starter, Penn State transfer Manny Bowen, abruptly left the team earlier this month. Redshirt sophomore Devin Lloyd and Sione Lund, a Stanford transfer, are next in the pecking order with Lloyd likely starting next to Bernard.
Entering the season as the Pac-12 favorite
Other than losing seasons in 2012 and 2013, Utah has been very competitive during its seven seasons in the Pac-12. Now, the Utes enter 2019 in an unfamiliar position: conference favorite.
Whittingham is doing everything he can to make sure raised expectations don’t impact the team’s on-field performance.
“We started these discussions with our players two or three months ago because we felt like we were going to have some preseason hype,” Whittingham said at Pac-12 Media Day. “We wanted to make sure that we got out ahead of it and talked to our players about ignoring the noise and just staying focused. We all know that the Pac-12 championship is our goal, so the focus is not on the goal, it's how are we going to achieve that goal.”
The Utes drew a brutal schedule last fall, facing Washington, Washington State, Stanford and Oregon, the North’s top four teams, in cross-division play. They’ll battle WSU and UW again this year, but have the respite of Oregon State and Cal added to the mix.
The North is clearly the superior division, so the Utes really need to capitalize on a South that seems to be in a state of flux. USC is plenty talented, but feels unpredictable entering a make-or-break year for Clay Helton. The two Arizona schools are entering the second season of a coaching regime change. So is UCLA under Chip Kelly. Colorado is starting over with Mel Tucker.
That leaves the Utes in position to strike.
Biggest game: at Washington (Nov. 2)
Utah has knocked off Washington just once in eight tries since joining the Pac-12. Two of those losses came last year. This year, Utah’s trip to UW could be big if the Pac-12 is going to be in the mix for the College Football Playoff, but opening conference play on the road at USC in Week 4 is a chance to set the tone early in the year. Utah is 1-8 all-time on the road against the Trojans with the only win coming back in 1916.
WR Britain Covey
Britain Covey returned to campus last year after two years away serving an LDS mission. The 5-foot-8 Covey led the Utes with 60 catches for 637 yards in 2018. Covey was also voted as the top return specialist in the Pac-12. With more talent around him at receiver entering 2019, Covey should have more room to maneuver in the middle of the field provided he returns from the torn ACL he suffered in the Pac-12 title game.
Biggest question mark
From Alex Markham of Rivals’ UteNation.com: Voted the preseason Pac-12 favorites, the Utah Utes have a target on their backs and they look ready to take everyone’s best shot. The biggest concern suddenly comes at linebacker, as prized Penn State transfer, Manny Bowen, quit football the day before fall camp started. The position has plenty of talent, but most is unproven. Simply put, it was a big late loss.
Ute Nation’s breakout player
WR Bryan Thompson
For the offense, with health on his side, Bryan Thompson looks primed for a breakout season. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt sophomore is the total package: sure-handed, fast, physical, and excels at winning contested balls. The only problem is, until now, his health has only allowed all of that to be on display in practice.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
CB Jaylon Johnson
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The Utes are loaded on defense, with players such as Bradley Anae and 330-pound Leki Fotu, both of whom figure to be early NFL draft picks next spring with their current trajectory. But we’re selecting Johnson, a top cover man who is slated to graduate in December despite being a junior by eligibility. He’s on the radar of NFL scouts as a possible top-50 selection and possibly could boost his stock if he participates in the Senior Bowl (for which he’d be eligible to play).
Last season as a sophomore, Johnson showed a knack for finding the ball with four interceptions in being named first-team All-Pac-12. He hasn’t been a punt or kick returner in college but has been a major weapon with the ball in his hands with 126 interception return yards (eighth in the nation) last season, including a 100-yard INT return vs. Stanford.
Johnson possesses nice size (6-foot, 190 pounds), length and athleticism. Scouts expect him to run in the mid-to-high 4.4s whenever he declares — he’s a junior who said he expects this to be his final season — as well as turn in good times in the other workouts. He’ll also do well in team interviews, we hear, with a serious, studious approach with a strong work ethic.
WR Jaylen Dixon
Britain Covey is the team’s most proven asset at receiver, but there are a slew of others with the chance to step into prominent roles. While upperclassmen like Demari Simpkins and Samson Nacua are pretty reliable, redshirt sophomore Jaylen Dixon showed last year he can be a big-play threat. The speedy Dixon caught 32 passes for 589 yards, leading the team with 18.4 yards per reception.
Utah should be a fairly significant favorite in most of its games with trips to USC, Washington and Arizona as the biggest challenges. Though some of the teams in the South could surprise, over seems like the play here.
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