Sunk by the loss of quarterback Jordan Wynn to a season-ending shoulder injury, Utah’s receivers combined for just 1,369 yards in their final nine contests of 2011 (152 per game). That was last in the Pac-12 in passing offense.
Of course, the story was the same last year. Following the early season loss of Wynn, the Utes again brought up the conference rear with 191 passing yards per game. After leading the Utes in receptions in 2010 and 2011, since-graduated DeVonte Christopher vanished last fall, ranking just fourth on the team in receptions.
To be fair, Christopher is now a member of the Washington Redskins, so quarterback issues were probably the root issue. (Head coach Kyle Whittingham and 26-year-old offensive coordinator Brian Johnson used not one but two signal-callers after losing Wynn.) But now, the Utes are apparently deep under center. Whittingham said he may have witnessed sophomore Travis Wilson play the best spring game of any signal-caller in his 19 years on the hill. Wilson’s backup, Adam Schulz, Whittingham says, may also be among the “upper echelon” of Pac-12 quarterbacks, and he’s only listed as a co-backup with Brandon Cox. The strong play of all three, including freshman Connor Manning, reportedly continued in fall practices.
That leaves the receivers with responsibility to improve upon two dismal years if the Utes expect to begin another streak of nine straight bowl appearances. Whittingham, Johnson and new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson — a nomad himself — needed stability here. With recent dismissals and academic issues, they’re far from it. But sufficient (even reportedly spectacular) wide-outs and tight ends return, with backups perhaps making the difference if they can compete with the other second-stringers in the highly offensive Pac-12.
Here's a closer look at what the receivers are up against and who Travis Wilson will be targeting this year.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. firstname.lastname@example.org | @wilklogan
There’s the well-known account of junior Quinton Pedroza, dismissed in June for violating unspecified team rules. That included his own disclosures on his Twitter account concerning his departure from Salt Lake City. Those sparked heated exchanges with fans of rival BYU.
Pedroza did not catch a pass in his first two seasons but was listed as a starter after spring camp.
The lesser-known dilemma is that one of the gems of Utah’s 2013 recruiting class did not arrive on campus for fall camp due to academic ineligibility, according to Torn By Sports. Xavier Shepherd of Lakewood High School (California) was the only representative of the University of Utah to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, an all-star game for graduating high school seniors. Now, he may arrive in Salt Lake City in January. Should Shepherd (5-11, 165 pounds) never take his talents to Utah, it will hurt. Junior college transfer Andre Lewis (6-3, 210) was the only other receiver signed for the 2013 class.
Shepherd tweeted in June that he looks forward to coming back “from this slump” and that he looks forward to being mentored by family member and Utah alum Reggie Dunn, who set NCAA records last season for 100-yard touchdown kick returns.
While the Utes' running backs reportedly are as deep as they have been in years, they are unproven: Only one (Kelvin York) has double-digit carries in a game (four times). So in the face of what Erickson has been saying about the running game, Wilson may have to rely on Anderson and Scott, both juniors, and Denham, a senior, to move downfield fast.
Anderson and Scott particularly have been noted for their excellent play by coaches and teammates and may provide just enough power to offset recent personnel losses.
But before August rolled around, pundits said that if the Utes can keep Denham healthy, the 6-foot-4, 222-pound East L.A. College transfer could have the biggest impact of the three this year, some are saying.
Anderson hopes it goes no other way — and in a familial fashion. Anderson is the son of former NFL wide receiver Willie "Flipper" Anderson, who played 10 years with the Rams, Colts, Redskins and Broncos. Willie, Dres Anderson said, was a “speedster.”
“That's what I want to be,” he said. “I want to be a guy that gets downfield, making playing and catching touchdowns. He was being a big-time player, and that's what I want to be."
Anderson last season led the receivers with 36 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns. Scott was third with 32 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns and Denham had 11 catches for 135 yards.
Both Anderson (6-1, 187) and Scott (6-3, 211) have proven themselves. Unless they pull a Christopher, they should have star seasons if Wilson is at least sufficient for Pac-12 standards. Denham (6-4, 222) has been hindered by injuries, including a hamstring injury and thumb injury that required surgery. He redshirted in 2011.
As Utezone.com managing editor Dan Sorensen has written, Murphy has legitimate NFL potential — and Utah normally doesn’t have tight ends like that. Instruction from Erickson, who has coached two teams in the Pac-12 and others in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the NFL, should only help Murphy’s prospects. With Tonga (6-5, 250 — like Murphy), the pair want to establish themselves as not only the top options at tight end, but for the entire offense. Whittingham said the Murphy-Tonga duo may be one of the best in the Pac-12.
Anderson isn’t alone in inheriting professional talent. Murphy is the son of Dale Murphy, a former Major League Baseball All-Star. He caught 33 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns last season. Tonga was one of 13 Utes in 2013 to catch at least four passes.
In April, Whittingham told the Deseret News’ Dirk Facer that the two, who both served LDS missions, clearly distinguished themselves from other tight ends — and the projected starting signal-caller likes what he sees, too.
“They know how to get open,” Wilson told Facer. “They’re big targets and they’re definitely people that I trust throwing to.”
After strong August performances, both should see playing time.
How the 6-5, 250-pound Reese fits in will be one of the interesting developments for the Utes on offense this fall. Utah has recently lost Dallin Rogers, Kendrick Moeai and David Rolf, now of the San Diego Chargers, at tight end, so it would welcome some immediate help. Reese also has just two years left.
Reese didn't play last year, so he may have only recently found his form. The Camden, N.J., native led Arizona Western to the 2011 junior college national championship game.
McClellon and Fitzgerald should be the primary backups at receiver. McClellon (5-9, 166) is a redshirt freshman whose 4.38 time in the 40 is the second-fastest on the team. He was a three-year starter for Gahr High (California), finishing as the state's third all-time career receiver.
It’s been a long time coming for Fitzgerald, but he may provide veteran leadership the corps needs — particularly in lieu of Pedroza’s dismissal and Shepherd’s absence. Since being named the Mission Viejo High (California) Offensive Player of the Year in 2005, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior served an LDS mission and redshirted in 2009. He played in two, six and nine games in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively.