SALT LAKE CITY — In 2015, Dennis Erickson returned to the state of Florida on a recruiting assignment.
His pitch? Move 2,500 miles west to a place few in Florida knew anything about and be a part of something special on the football field.
But by all accounts, the University of Utah was an unknown player in the Florida recruiting game — a geographical mismatch — and had little in the way of sustained success as a Power Five program to promise a favorable destination.
Utah had just wrapped up its season with a 9-4 record and a win in their first bowl game after a two-year hiatus off back-to-back 5-7 seasons. But beyond that, Utah was still an unknown bet, particularly for kids that had offers from home-town schools like Miami — "The U," the place where Erickson made his name known.
Erickson’s name alone preceded him as the coach that led Miami to two national championships and an incredible winning record from 1989-94. Still, the high-profile coach made his pitch to a trio of athletes from Hallandale High School and asked them to overlook a Blue Blood program like Miami to join the other U.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Demari Simpkins were the first to take the bait. After an official recruiting visit to Utah in August, the pair were sold and they committed that weekend. Miami running back commit Zack Moss officially decommitted from Miami on Nov. 10 and committed to Utah on Nov. 23.
The Hallandale Trio had begun.
At the time, fans and coaches were ecstatic to have recruits from Florida, a breeding ground for high-profile athletes, recognize Utah as a favorable destination — the tide was starting to turn. But few could actually imagine the success each would ultimately have in their four seasons at Utah.
In the four seasons since they joined the program, each has had a measurable impact on a team that many have predicted to win the Pac-12 and have a shot at the playoffs.
Moss is 302 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns away from becoming the program’s all-time record holder — records both set in the 80s — and has the potential to be the school’s single-season rushing leader, too. In his two games this season, Moss leads the country in missed tackles at 27 and has back-to-back games where he’s forced double-digit tackles.
Most missed tackles forced through 2 weeks, FBS RBs:— Cam Mellor (@PFF_Cam) September 9, 2019
Zack Moss, Utah: 27
Jordan Mason, Ga Tech: 19
Cam Akers, FSU: 17
Kylin Hill, Miss St: 15
JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn: 15
Christopher Brown Jr., Cal: 15
Charles Williams, UNLV: 13
The senior running back and Heisman hopeful has found a maturity and patience to his game. His vision and ability to attack opposing defenders makes him difficult to bring down, and his speed makes him difficult to contain.
His quarterback, Huntley, is poised to have one of his best seasons under center at Utah since winning the job his sophomore season and is managing a new scheme put into place by new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Last week, Huntley led the country in Total QBR (98.6), a near-perfect score, against a good Northern Illinois defense, and he’s 10th overall on the season with an 85.5 score.
“He's got a great deal of confidence right now in what he's doing,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday. “He's got a great grasp of what Andy's scheme is all about, and Andy's done a great job with Tyler. He's in the top 10 in the nation in QBR, which is the real — that's what you pay attention to. If you want to know how your quarterback's doing, look at the QBR; that's the best analytic or evaluation of how your quarterback is helping your team out and contributing.”
Whittingham added that Huntley is “making good decisions” and is more patient than in years past; he’s not trying to “force the ball into spots he shouldn’t be forcing it.”
Huntley’s high level of play so far this season puts him in rare territory as the only offense in the country that hasn’t turned the ball over or had a sack. It’s assignment-sound football, and Utah has Huntley to thank for the early success.
“Tyler making good decisions and getting rid of the ball on time, that's helped him in making for the zero sacks to this point, as well as his elusiveness,” Whittingham said. “He's had some situations where a guy not as athletic as him might have gotten sacked, but he's athletic enough to escape some of those pressures.
“It won't last forever, but it's been two good weeks of that.”
Simpkins, too, has been an integral member of the offense. The slot receiver has played all four seasons in the rotation and continues to make big plays for the offense. He may not get the same attention that Moss and Huntley attract as the focal point of the offense, but he’s been nonetheless effective in his specific role on the team.
On Saturday, the Hallandale Trio each recorded a rushing touchdown in the first half of the game against Northern Illinois. It was an outward visualization that the Florida natives have lifted the offense to greater heights and excitement.
That promise of something special by Erickson in 2015 largely paid out. The trio still has a long road ahead of them in their final season with the program, but their success has undeniably given Utah a chance at its best season in school history.