Utah’s wide receivers have been a staple of coach Kyle Whittingham’s offense since he was promoted to the head coaching role in 2005. Names like Steve Smith, Kevin Dyson and appropriately-named Jack Steptoe have graced the grass of Rice Eccles Stadium in the 125 years of Utah’s presence on it. When looking at a wide receiving corps, a hierarchy is easy to establish. Route running, catching ability and potential for yards gained after catching the pass are key factors in selecting a receiver who stands above the rest. Utah looks to do just that this upcoming season, and amidst a large group — one of the largest represented player groups in football — they look to stand tall.
Last year, the Utes were able to depend on transfer senior Daniel Carrington II for most of their production from outside the tackles. Carrington transferred to Utah after having three wildly successful seasons with the Ducks, from of the University of Oregon. During his time with the Ducks, Carrington racked up historic performances against the powerhouse schools of the Pac-12 and other schools around the country. He had a dominant performance against the University of Arizona in the 2014 Pac-12 championship game — my oh my, how times change — and would follow that up with two touchdowns and 167 yards against Florida State in the Rose Bowl the very next year. Carrington’s solo season with the Utes saw him starting in 9 of 12 games played, missing the contest with Washington State due to injury. Against his former squad, Carrington put up 130 yards on 9 receptions in what would be a game to forget for the Utes. As he graduates, he takes with him a wealth of offensive tools and abilities that the Utes will look to fill this season.
The 2018 season brings with it the return of standout receiver Britain Covey. Covey spent his freshman year as a starting receiver and punter for the Utes, before leaving for an LDS mission that removed him from the program for two years. His comeback season is filled with expectations that he will not only take Carrington’s place as the go-to receiver for the team, but that he will maintain his form as a nationally-recognized talent. He will usually line up against the defense’s best coverage players, drawing attention away from other role-playing receivers. In his solo season with the team, Covey racked up several numbers resonant with NFL-caliber route runners as a freshman playing in the slot, or the receivers closest to the offensive line. Posting up over 100 yards on the strongest teams in the Pac-12, Covey’s presence was missed on the sideline and is a welcome sight for quarterback Tyler Huntley, who will likely be throwing Covey’s way a lot this upcoming season.
The rest of the receiver group contains several key pieces that will look to drive Utah’s offense. Samson Nacua will look to establish himself as a staple in Utah’s starting roster, while junior Siaosi Mariner and sophomore Bryan Thompson hope to continue their production for an offense that will look to top the other schools in the conference.
The Pac-12 is full of talent at the position, but Utah is slated to be among the best in wide receivers. The University of Washington suffered the loss of Dante Pettis, an expert returner and wideout, to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Jay Macintyre is the lone senior receiver in a recently short-handed group of receivers under quarterback Jake Browning. The rest of the Pac-12 is largely up in the air, due to the massive loss of top-tier quarterback talent, like Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold out of UCLA and USC, respectively. Huntley and Browning now find themselves atop the quarterback race in the Pac-12, and the receivers will be the primary recipient of this added responsibility. UCLA is strong in the running for the receiver position, with senior standout Jordan Lasley, Jr. and Theo Howard, both of which will look for passes from a plethora of new quarterbacks as UCLA looks to fill the gap left by Rosen’s departure. USC only lost one receiver to graduation and will come into next year with a wide receiver group that remained largely intact.
Something that should not be lost is the abilities of the running back group to act as pass catchers out of the backfield. As players become more dynamic, they are asked to have a much larger skill set than their predecessors, which leads to an increasing number of potential mismatches for opposing defenses. Last season, running back Zack Moss served many downs as a fifth receiver for Huntley, and was high up in team reception statistics, catching 23 passes for 243 yards. There is definitely room to grow, but coming from a whopping one reception in 2016, it is a drastic improvement from last year’s production.
The competition for the prevalence of the receiver group will be between the receivers themselves and the ability of coach Kyle Whittingham to rely on the run game to make plays and move the ball. In 2017, Utah was forced to rely on a combination of two groups — the running backs and wide receivers — that were still gaining their footing and settling into their roles. Zack Moss exploded for over 1,000 yards, while the receiver group struggled to produce outside of throwing up prayers to Carrington. The receiver group will have some healthy competition with Moss’ return as a dominant yard-getter, and with the return of Covey, the pressure is on the other receivers in the group to catch the tougher passes and show that they can be a reliable source of offensive production. This point is especially so with the transition from Huntley to freshman Jack Tuttle, who has yet to see any college action. Going from local high schools to facing off against USC cornerbacks is going to be a tough adjustment for the new thrower, and a reliable receiver group would do nothing but good for the confidence of a young quarterback with expectations of Pac-12 championships.