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Utah Football: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Utes in 2019

Utah Football: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Utes in 2019

Utah Football: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Utes in 2019

Utah took a major step forward in its evolution from BCS Buster to Power 5 school by claiming its first-ever Pac-12 South title in 2018. The wheels fell off a bit at the end for the Utes, who closed out a 9-5 campaign on a down note with back-to-back losses to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.

The door is open to take an even bigger step forward in 2019. Utah returns tons of talent, depth, and experience on offense and defense. Could the Utes make a run to the Rose Bowl this time around? The odds are favorable. There's no question Utah will be a favorite to emerge out of the Pac-12 South again.

1. Utah's key playmakers on offense are back

The Utes received some welcome offseason news when running back Zack Moss announced he would forego entering the 2019 NFL Draft and return for his senior season. With Moss in the backfield, Utah should be even stronger on offense this fall. Moss has rushed for at least 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons and has piled up 2,651 total rushing yards in three seasons with the Utes.

Joining Moss will be fellow senior Tyler Huntley. Utah's offense hummed with Huntley at quarterback until a broken collarbone ended his season in November. Huntley has thrown for 4,199 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions over the past two seasons. He has completed 64 percent of his passes in that stretch. Huntley has also tallied 841 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.

Nearly all of Utah's top receivers will be back, including Britain Covey and Jaylen Dixon. Covey led the team with 637 yards on 60 receptions. Dixon had 589 yards on 32 catches, topping the Utes with 18.4 yards per reception.

2. Andy Ludwig is the offensive coordinator again

Utah fans are cautiously optimistic to see Ludwig back on the sidelines in Salt Lake City. Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham hired Ludwig to serve as offensive coordinator a second time after Troy Taylor departed to become the head coach at FCS program Sacramento State. Ludwig also will serve as quarterbacks coach.

Ludwig previously spent four years as the offensive coordinator from 2005-08. During his final season of his first stint at Utah, he helped coach the Utes to a 13-0 record and a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. Utah led the Mountain West and ranked 15th nationally in scoring, averaging 36.9 points per game, in 2008.

Utah had balanced and productive offenses in three of Ludwig's four seasons during his first stint with the team. The Utes led the MWC both in total offense and pass efficiency offense in 2005. They also ranked second in the league in passing offense that season as well as '06. Utah finished second among MWC teams in rushing offense in 2007. There's reason to believe he can produce similar results in 2019 with more talent and depth to work with at every position.

3. Defense will remain at its usual elite level

Moss isn't the only major contributor who elected to return for one more season. Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, and Julian Blackmon all declined to enter the 2019 NFL Draft as well. It means that Utah will only have to replace defensive starters at safety and linebacker now.

Anae and Fotu both earned first team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Anae led the league with 8.0 sacks. Blackmon is the top returning tackler in the secondary with 48 tackles. He'll be joined by Jaylon Johnson, who led the team with four interceptions, and Javelin Guidry.

The biggest question mark is at safety, where the Utes must replace Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard. Linebacker will be solid with senior Francis Bernard and Penn State transfer Manny Bowen ready to step up and fill the void left by Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. The duo will have big shoes to fill. Hansen and Barton combined for 230 tackles, 32.5 tackles for a loss, 9.0 sacks, and three interceptions in 2018.

— 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.