For the first time, Utah enters a season as defending Pac-12 South champion with genuine Rose Bowl possibilities. This is new territory for a program that prides itself on exceeding expectations.
Coach Kyle Whittingham views his team the same way as ever. "It's nice to be recognized as a team that's doing some good things, but I don't think there's any chance of this team becoming overconfident or losing that underdog mentality," Whittingham says.
The favorable impressions of the Utes stem from their returning personnel. Utah had only nine senior starters (counting two kickers) in 2018 and brings back nearly every offensive player who touched the football.
The Utes sent six players to the NFL Scouting Combine. But four key players, including running back Zack Moss, chose to stay in school for their senior seasons.
If the offensive line comes together, the Utes expect to be consistently productive in coordinator Andy Ludwig's return to the program after a 10-year absence. The defense appears solid on all levels.
Previewing Utah's Offense for 2019
Quarterback Tyler Huntley missed the last five games of 2018 with a broken collarbone. He had led Utah to a 4–0 October that included a win at Stanford and convincing defeats of USC and UCLA. Huntley looked good in the spring and regained his job over Jason Shelley, who had won his first three starts before losing to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game and to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.
Ludwig intends to maximize Huntley's running ability, in addition to using more rollout passing. "I have not coached a quarterback with that skill set, that athleticism, in my career," Ludwig says.
Moss will be the centerpiece of Utah's offense. He also missed those final five games last season, due to a knee injury. Moss had gained 1,096 yards in nine games and is a dynamic, punishing runner who wants a big workload. Devonta'e Henry-Cole emerged as the No. 2 back in spring practice, with Moss rehabilitating.
Britain Covey caught 60 passes as a sophomore before injuring his knee in the conference title game and missing spring practice. Covey is more than halfway to Utah's career receptions record and should be featured as both a receiver and a runner in Ludwig's scheme, which also will make good use of sophomore tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe. Sophomore Solomon Enis played well in the spring.
Utah's line is led by tackle Darrin Paulo. Orlando Umana, Nick Ford and Braeden Daniels are solid players, with an opening for junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni to step in at tackle if he completes his academic requirements.
Previewing Utah's Defense for 2019
Utah's coaches were thrilled when defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae chose to stay in school. As always, the front four will anchor a Ute defense that ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 against the run and No. 2 overall last season.
Whittingham says Utah's defensive line includes "three NFL guys, at least." John Penisini was highly consistent at tackle in his first extended action last season.
The linebackers are a question mark, with Cody Barton and Chase Hansen having departed as possibly the best tandem in school history. Manny Bowen, a graduate transfer from Penn State, and Francis Bernard should fill those spots adequately in a scheme that uses two linebackers. Bernard was sidelined during the spring, when Devin Lloyd was Utah's most improved defensive player, according to coordinator Morgan Scalley.
The secondary lost both safeties, so Julian Blackmon moved from cornerback to safety. Jaylon Johnson is an NFL prospect as a junior cornerback, and the rest of the secondary looks capable. Utah's basic scheme uses five defensive backs, and slot corner Javelin Guidry is one of the fastest players in college football.
Scalley's biggest emphasis is takeaways. Last season, the Utes intercepted 15 passes but recovered only six fumbles in 14 games.
Previewing Utah's Specialists for 2019
Punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay completed their careers as national award winners and major weapons for the Utes. Whittingham recruited another Australian punter, Ben Lennon, as Wishnowsky's replacement. Chayden Johnston was named Utah's No. 1 kicker after spring practice, but he announced five days later that he was giving up football. Johnston's move promotes freshman walk-on Jadon Redding to the top position on Utah's depth chart, after an inconsistent performance in the spring. UCLA graduate transfer Andrew Strauch will battle for the spot in the fall. Covey, who played about half of last season with a broken bone in his wrist, is the primary returner. Being healthy should help him be more aggressive in fielding punts.
Even before the Utes completed their first Pac-12 South title season, 2019 was coming into focus with returning players in key positions and a favorable schedule that does not include Stanford and Oregon. UCLA is the only South Division team to play in the league title game in consecutive seasons, and the Utes believe they're well positioned to match the feat. The Pac-12 opener, Sept. 20 at USC, will be a good gauge of the Utes' credentials as defending champions.