Experience and talent return in all the right areas for Utah ahead of the 2018 college football season. It could open the door for the Utes to take a major step forward after enduring a rebuilding season a year ago.
Utah returns 18 full- or part-time starters from head coach Kyle Whittingham's team that won seven games last season – culminating in a Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over West Virginia. The Utes fell out of contention for a Pac-12 South title after enduring a four-game losing streak when a shoulder injury sidelined quarterback Tyler Huntley for a pair of games.
Climbing upward in the division shouldn't be a problem for Utah with many Pac-12 South teams breaking in new coaches or replacing several key contributors. The Utes may have their most favorable chance yet for making a run at a divisional crown.
Here are five Utah players to keep an eye on in spring practice, who could play pivotal roles as the season unfolds:
Chase Hansen, LB
For the second time in his career, Hansen is switching positions. The senior switched to safety from quarterback during his freshman campaign and became an important leader in the secondary over the last two seasons. Now, he will move to linebacker for his final season.
Hansen has a nose for the ball and is a vicious hitter. Both traits should serve him well in making the transition to linebacker. He tied for second in the nation in fumble recoveries (4) as a sophomore. Hansen also led the Utes in tackles (90), passes defended (12) and pass breakups (9) in 2016 – ranking in the top 12 in the Pac-12 in all three categories.
Injuries plagued Hansen for much of last season and limited him to action in just eight games. He still found a way to make a major impact, finishing second on the team in tackles per game (6.38) and third in total tackles (51). If he can stay healthy, Hansen could be a force at linebacker in the fall.
Armand Shyne, RB
Much has changed in the backfield since Shyne last saw action two seasons ago. He played five games in 2016, making one start against Arizona, before suffering a season-ending injury. Shyne led the team in rushing at the time of his injury, with 373 yards and four touchdowns on 78 carries. Another injury in fall camp a year ago sidelined Shyne for the entire 2017 season.
Now the redshirt junior enters spring ball as the No. 2 back behind fellow junior Zack Moss. Shyne was poised to be a starter at one time, but he has his work cut out for him to actually surge ahead of Moss now. Moss is coming off a breakout sophomore season where he rushed for 1,173 yards – the eighth-best single-season total for rushing yardage at Utah.
Shyne has a chance to solidify his position on the depth chart with Devonta'e Henry-Cole missing all of spring practice with an injury. Henry-Cole served as the primary backup to Moss last season. He tallied 279 yards and two touchdowns on 55 carries.
Tyler Huntley, QB
What can Huntley do for an encore? When he was healthy, the junior demonstrated an ability to be an electric playmaker at quarterback. Huntley possessed an accurate arm, made good decisions and could burn defenders with his mobility.
Huntley started 10 games as a sophomore, missing three because of injuries. He threw for 2,411 yards and rushed for 537 yards. His 63.8 completion percentage ranked third in the Pac-12. Huntley also ranked third in the Pac-12 and 19th in the nation in total offense (294.8 ypg). He was the first Utah quarterback to have back-to-back 300-yard passing games since Brian Johnson in 2008.
Huntley is projected to start for a second straight season, but he will face some competition in spring camp from redshirt freshman Jason Shelley and true freshman Jack Tuttle. Tuttle, a heralded four-star quarterback in Utah's 2018 signing class, enrolled in January so he could participate in spring practices.
Bradlee Anae, DE
Anae is the lone returning starter from last season's defensive line. Spring practices will serve as a good gauge to see how well the junior handles a leadership role along the line of scrimmage this season. He certainly fits the mold of past defensive line stars at Utah.
Anae made 10 starts at right end and tackle last season and distinguished himself as a valuable edge rusher. He excelled in pressuring the ball, tying for second in the Pac-12 in forced fumbles (3) and fourth in fumbles recovered (2). Anae also tied for seventh in the Pac-12 and led Utah with 7.0 sacks. He was the top tackler up front for the Utes with 39 total stops.
Spring will bring a slight position shift for Anae. He will now play at left end after spending most of last season on the right side.
Demari Simpkins, WR
After spending last season as a part-time starter, the door is open for Simpkins to assume a larger role at receiver this season. Utah lost its top two receivers from a year ago and Simpkins seems well equipped to take a major step forward. He has enough speed to stretch the field and give the Utes a true threat on deep routes.
He showed plenty of potential in 2017. Simpkins played in all 13 games and made six starts. He finished with 354 yards and a touchdown on 29 catches. Simpkins is listed as a starter on the spring depth chart along with fellow returning receivers Siaosi Mariner and Samson Nacua.
Offense isn't the only place where Simpkins is capable of doing damage. He enters the spring as a starting kick returner after handling those duties a year ago. Simpkins tallied a team-high 207 yards on nine kickoff returns as a sophomore.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.