The Game Plan: Utah Football in 2019


Curtis Lin

University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham talks to players during the Utah Red and White Game at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, UT on Saturday April 14, 2018. (Photo by Curtis Lin/ Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Zach Janis


After the chaos of scheduling, playing from week to week and transporting over 200 personnel to away games, the conference championship and bowl games, it can feel like the end of the season is a chance to breathe, collect and regroup before the start of the next season. That is, unless you’re a member of the team itself.

It took all of 20 minutes between the end of the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl and the post-game press conference for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham to field his first questions about the upcoming offseason, recruiting period and winter conditioning. The football season is a year-round process and there have been many developments since the Utes walked off the field at Qualcomm Stadium.

A handful of coaching changes took place in the weeks following the third-quarter collapse. The carousel of offensive coordinator made one more stop as Troy Taylor departed from the team to take a head coaching job at Sacramento State University after only two years with the Utes. According to Whittingham’s previous hires, two years is a long time to keep the job. Since 2008, the job has belonged to nine different coordinators, and one can only question whether or not the constant turnover has been the reason that the team hasn’t been able to capture that elusive conference championship title.

Gary Anderson is also taking his talents elsewhere next year. After a third stint on the Utah coaching staff, including runs from 1997-2002 and 2004-2008, Anderson was announced as the next head coach just up the freeway at Utah State University. Not only is this not Anderson’s first swing with the Aggies, but it represents Anderson’s mileage throughout the state of Utah. He’s coached at Park City High School, the University of Utah, Southern Utah University and Utah State. Anderson also oversaw the tutelage of Kalani Sitake, who now holds the reigns at Brigham Young University.

Coming into the Utah football program in their place are two individuals with no shortage of experience between them. Coming in on the defensive side of the ball is Colton Swan, who will head the linebacking corps, one of Utah’s biggest assets last season. Swan served as an assistant with the Weber State University Wildcats for 15 consecutive years before coming to Utah, serving primarily as the team’s special teams coordinator as well as coaching the inside linebackers. He served in many roles in his tenure with the Wildcats, coaching the safeties and tight ends, as well as being the co-defensive coordinator for two years. Serving under five head coaches and multiple defensive schemes, Swan’s experience with turnover is nothing short of what the Utah team needs in order to be contenders for years to come.

“I am thankful for the opportunity coach Whittingham has given me,” Swan said. “The opportunity to coach at Utah was one I just couldn’t pass up.”

Swan comes to the team with some championship experience under his belt, as the Wildcats have won back-to-back Big Sky championships for the past two years, as well as making the FCS playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Swan was on staff for one of the best defensive teams in the country, with the Wildcats ranking in the top 10 in interceptions, turnovers gained and Red Zone defense, the third of which Utah has dominated since 2017.

Also joining the Utah coaching staff is Andy Ludwig, a name that may resonate with Utah fans. This is not the first time that Ludwig has held the position of offensive coordinator, as he was on staff for the Sugar Bowl run in 2008. He was the offensive coordinator behind both of Utah’s undefeated campaigns, as well as serving as the team’s quarterback coach. Since departing from the program in 2008, he has traveled far and wide across the college football landscape. He served as California’s offensive coordinator from 2009-10, San Diego State University (2011-12), Wisconsin (2013-14) and Vanderbilt (2015-18). Before his first term at Utah, Ludwig got college experience as the quarterbacks’ coach at the University of Oregon, a team that the Utes will face in his first year back at the helm.

“It’s great to have Andy back on our staff,” said Whittingham. “He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience as a collegiate offensive coordinator, as well as being an outstanding quarterbacks coach and recruiter. Andy is obviously very familiar with our program which should make for a seamless transition.”

Whittingham might choose to use Ludwig’s experience as a quarterback coach to the team’s advantage. Tyler Huntley is a lock for the starting job in his senior season, but Utah fans got a great look at Jason Shelley in his injury-stricken absence. While starting hot, Shelley stumbled in the Pac-12 Championship game against the Washington Huskies before completely collapsing in the Holiday Bowl against Northwestern. A seasoned, veteran coach like Ludwig could coach some confidence into the now-sophomore, just in time for Huntley to complete his senior season.

Ludwig is no stranger to high-scoring offenses, and Utah had just that this past season. During his time at Utah while the team was still a member of the Mountain West Conference, the team was surging in terms of offensive production. In 2005, the Utes left the Mountain West in total offense, averaging a whopping 473 yards per game, as well as ranking 10th in the country in pass efficiency offense. The team would follow that very next year with an offense that finished second in the country in yards per game. During his time with Wisconsin, Ludwig made history on multiple occasions. In two season with the Badgers, the team held a 20-7 record, including two Jan. 1 bowl appearances. He led the team to multiple offensive records, which is exactly what Utah needs to maintain its high-flying offense.

Now, all of the staff additions that the team has made since the new year will mean nothing if there isn’t a qualified team for them to coach. While the team, in its current state, is contending for a Pac-12 title and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, the recruiting class brought in each year is crucial to the maintaining of that successful culture. While the team lost some essential pieces on both sides of the ball, they added some key pieces to fill the gaps left.

One of the best additions that can help the team immediately is that of Manny Bowen, a transfer linebacker from Penn State University. A three-year veteran, Bowen started 21 games of 35 played across three seasons with the Nittany Lions. A constant presence in any offense’s backfield, Bowen had 134 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss (TFL), as well as 3.5 sacks in three years with the team. He will look to bring a veteran presence to the linebacking corps at the U after both Chase Hansen and Cody Barton departed for the NFL following impressive senior seasons.

Bowen joins the nine other players joining the defensive side of the ball. Looking to fill the spot left by Marquis Blair is LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson, a 6-foot-1-inch freshman out of Phoenix, Arizona. Pleasant-Johnson was the No. 15-ranked recruit out of the state of Arizona by 247Sports and was ranked as a three-star cornerback. In his senior season at Mountain Pointe High School, he had 51 tackles, four interceptions and 15 passes defended.

The two are also joined in the secondary by Drew Rawls, another defensive back out of Beaumont, Texas. The 184-pound safety was a First-team 21-6A All-District player in his senior season at West Brook Senior High School, and his experience in running track and field will be an asset in chasing down speedy Pac-12 receivers.

On the offensive side, the team added a plethora of talent, with 10 recruits joining the team. One of the more interesting commits is freshman quarterback Cameron Rising. After the debacle of Jack Tuttle, the depth chart after Huntley is Shelley, followed by Drew Lisk. It might be an effort to sew up loose ends in the depth chart, but Rising showed promise out of high school and in his redshirt season with the Texas Longhorns. Ranked as the No. 8 pro-style quarterback, Rising also competed in track and field, something that will help him fit right in with the mobile-passer-archetype that Whittingham has favored in his time with the Utes.

With the departure of both Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky, the Utes got themselves another Australian punter in the recruitment of Ben Lennon. A transfer from Swinburne University, Lennon played four seasons of Australian rules football in the Australian Football League from 2014-17, and was a first-round draft pick by the Richmond Tigers, going 12th overall. The nationally recognized punter will look to fill a huge set of shoes, as Wishnowsky set records in his time with the Utes, and did wonders for both the offense and defense, setting up the defense with great field position and bailing out the offense when needed.

The Utes will not be replacing too much this upcoming season, but with new staff on both sides, and a plethora of new recruits, the Utes have put themselves in a position to take titles for years to come.

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