SALT LAKE CITY — While the college football season officially wrapped up Monday night with the Clemson Tigers handing Alabama in a 44-16 drubbing, University of Utah fans can’t help but look forward to the 2019 college football season.
The Utes were given an extraordinary gift when juniors Zack Moss, Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and Julian Blackmon all decided they’d stay at Utah for their senior season. With a quick look over a projected depth chart, it’s safe to say this will be Utah’s most talented roster in program history.
The mere fact that there was a question that any of these four junior players would be staying says plenty about their skill level. All could have chosen to enter the NFL draft and heard their names called on draft weekend or attempted to work their way onto an NFL roster as a free agent.
Moss and Anae were most likely draft picks, while Fotu and Blackmon had an outside chance of being drafted. At the very least, they would have gotten opportunities to compete for a job in an NFL minicamp.
Moss stays at Utah as the team’s starting running back, just 572 yards shy of the all-time rushing record for the Utes. Moss missed the final five games of the season for the Utes and likely would have owned the record had he stayed healthy over the final weeks of Utah’s season. Moss was projected as a potential high-round draft pick before his injury.
Anae led the Pac-12 in sacks with eight and will continue to stabilize a Utah pass rush that found its footing with Maxs Tupai midway through the season. Between Anae and Tupai, the returning Fotu will look to become the next player in a long line of Utah defensive tackles to make a name for themselves as NFL prospects.
Fotu’s 6-foot-5, 325-pound frame already eats up blockers, but he's joined by Pita Tonga and Hauati Pututau. This means that every starter on Utah’s defensive line from last season will be together for this season.
While linebackers will take a hit, losing Chase Hansen and Cody Barton who should both get a look from NFL teams, they’ll be replaced by proven contributors in Francis Bernard and Manny Bowen, not to mention Donavan Thompson. Bernard showed his knack for making plays on the ball late in the season for the Utes, while Bowen is transferring from Penn State where he split reps as a starter.
Blackmon may have come up short of the enormous expectations he had coming into the season due to an ankle and finger injury and the emergence of sophomore Jaylon Johnson. Both Johnson and Blackmon will likely be highly sought after in the 2020 NFL draft, while Javelin Guidry will continue to man the nickelback spot.
Safeties will be Utah’s biggest question heading into the 2019 season, as seniors Marquis Blair and Corrion Baller graduate from the program. The safety position is likely where Utah will see the biggest drop off in production from 2018 to 2019.
On the offensive side of the ball, spearheaded by Moss, the Utes will see the return of senior quarterback Tyler Huntley. Like Moss, Huntley missed the final five games of the season with a shoulder injury, but he should be back to 100 percent by spring football for the Utes.
Huntley will have the benefit of a young receiving corps that had a breakout season for the Utes. Britain Covey, Solomon Enis, Samson Nacua, Demari Simpkins and Jaylen Dixon will return in similar roles from last season, while Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe will again dominate the reps at the tight end position.
On offense, the biggest questions marks will come on the offensive line where the Utes will lose starting center Lo Falemaka, right guard Jordan Agasiva, and left tackle Jackson Barton. Replacing three upperclassmen starters will be no small task, but Utah's youth on the offensive line showed promise between Braeden Daniels and Nick Ford.
Utah’s biggest remaining question will be in how they replace offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, who departed Utah for a head coaching position at Sacramento State. The Utes could stay in-house and promote offensive line coach Jim Harding to the coordinator position, or look to make a splash with a name outside of the program.
The Utes still have questions that must be addressed before the Utes take the field against BYU in late August, but with experience returning at key positions, and several potential NFL players choosing Utah over playing on Sundays, the 2019 Utes will be the most talented Utah team to ever take the field.