Utah has gone 10-2 in bowl games under head coach Kyle Whittingham, shown being doused by former Utes defensive back Eric Weddle, left, and lineman Tavo Tupola after Utah defeated Tulsa 25-13 in the 2006 Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press file)

Football

Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: No. 21 Utah has holes to fill in quest for a third Pac-12 South title

Gone from 2019 are the quarterback, running back, best pass rusher and a handful of NFL-drafted defensive backs.

Posted July 5th, 2020

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The 2020 college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

 

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No. 21: Utah

The Utes’ first goal is to win the Pac-12 South for the third straight season, a tough task for a team that’s lost several key components. Perhaps the most instrumental player will be quarterback Jake Bentley, a transfer from South Carolina. Rebuilding the secondary will be on coach Kyle Whittingham’s to-do list. We’ll know more about the team’s chances of being a national player when Utah opens on Sept. 3 against rival BYU in Salt Lake City.

Utah wasn’t ranked in our preseason poll last year.

 

About the Utes

2019: 11-3, 8-1 in the Pac-12; lost to Texas 38-10 in the Alamo Bowl

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 131-64, all in 15 years at Utah

Returning starters: 7 offense, 2 defense

Shoes to fill: QB Tyler Huntley (all-conference, 23-10 as a starter); RB Zack Moss (Utah’s career rushing leader, Bills’ 3rd-round pick); LB Bradley Anae (school’s career sacks leader, two-time all-conference); CB Jaylon Johnson (2nd round, Bears); S Julian Blackmon (3rd round, Colts); S Terrell Burgess (3rd round, Rams); DT Leki Fotu (4th round, Cardinals); DE Bradley Anae (5th round, Cowboys)

 

Catching up

Utah is among several teams that are choosing not to disclose whether any players are testing positive for the coronavirus. … Utah’s 2020 signing class included five returned missionaries along with a graduate transfer, a junior college transfer and defensive end Van Fillinger, a four-star prospect from Utah who decommitted from Texas last December and then signed with the Utes. (Also on the roster is former Longhorns quarterback Cameron Rising). The class ranked 29th nationally. … One bright spot for a depleted defense is LB Devin Lloyd, who led the team in tackles and had 6.5 sacks. … Former Utes running back Zack Moss and safety Julian Blackmon went back-to-back in the NFL draft; Blackmon was taken 85th overall to the Indianapolis Colts, then the Buffalo Bills nabbed Moss with the 86th pick.

 

Clemson defensive lineman Austin Bryant grabs a piece of the jersey of South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley during their 2018 game. Bentley’s 2019 season ended after only one game due to a serious foot injury. He has transferred to Utah (Ken Ruinard/Independent Mail)

Returning leaders

Passing: Drew Lisk (3rd on team), 7-9-52 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs

Rushing: Devin Brumfield (3rd), 59-263-2; Jordan Wilmore (4th), 49-194-1

Receiving: TE Brant Kuithe (1st), 34-602-6; Jaylen Dixon (4th), 24-343-1

Tackles: LB Devin Lloyd (1st), 91

Sacks: LB Devin Lloyd (2nd), 6.5; DT Mika Tafua (3rd), 3

Interceptions: Several with 1

 

Returning all-conference

Offense: TE Brant Kuithe (2nd team); OL Nick Ford (hon. mention); OL Simi Moala (hon. mention); OL Orlando Umana (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Devin Lloyd (hon. mention); DL Mika Tafua (hon. mention)

 

FYI

The new QB: Bentley, who graduated from South Carolina on Dec. 16, transferred to Utah for his final year of eligibility. After appearing in 33 games from 2016-18, he only played in one game last year after suffering a season-ending foot injury in the opener against North Carolina. As a sophomore, he passed for 2,794 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. As a junior he finished with 3,171 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He also led the Gamecocks to bowl games all three years and was named the MVP of the 2018 Outback Bowl victory over Michigan.

Talk about rebuilding: All five starters in the secondary have moved on. In the next-man-up category, the most promising newcomer might be CB Clark Phillips III, considered Utah’s highest-rated recruit ever. Bronson Boyd, a former wide receiver, will get playing time at cornerback, too. He has played mainly on special teams. Among the defensive backs who have moved on is former Cedar Park standout Jav Guidry, who signed a free agent contract with the New York Jets. In all, seven Utes were drafted.

Great Britain: The offense will receive a boost with the return of 23-year-old junior wide receiver Britain Covey, who redshirted after four games last season to recover from a knee injury. He led the Utes in receiving in 2015 and 2018, earning all-conference nods both years as a return specialist. He spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rancagua, Chile.

 

2019 national stat rankings

Scoring: 38th (2018 — 75th)

Scoring defense: 6th (17th)

Total offense: 48th (71st)

Total defense: 2nd (14th)

Passing: 69th (78th)

Pass defense: 13th (53rd)
 
Rushing: 32nd (53rd)

Rush defense: 3rd (5th)

Red zone offense: 57th (15th)

Red zone defense: 15th (2nd)

Turnover margin: 17th (99th)

Time of possession: 3rd (68th)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Utah

 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 20 team. Want a hint?

This school’s head coach was a top college player himself; he finished runner-up in the 2000 Heisman Trophy vote behind Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke.

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