We felt like we had a great class when we signed them, but it’s become even more definitive after we’ve had a chance to work with them for a couple of weeks. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s rare for a true freshman to get much playing time on a major college football team. It’s become even rarer at the University of Utah in recent years since the Utes joined the Pac-12 and improved their depth considerably.
Yet several true freshmen dot the latest Ute two-deep depth chart, and according to coach Kyle Whittingham, it’s because of the increase in talent level the Utes are recruiting.
Whittingham rattled off a half dozen names of true freshmen who have a chance to play this season, which begins Sept. 1 against Southern Utah.
“We feel we really helped ourselves with this signing class,” he said. “We felt like we had a great class when we signed them, but it’s become even more definitive after we’ve had a chance to work with them for a couple of weeks.”
At least four true freshmen are listed on the current two-deep chart, including wide receiver Demari Simpkins, quarterback Tyler Huntley, defensive end Bradlee Anae and linebacker Donavan Thompson. Others who have caught Whittingham’s eye include defensive ends Leki Fotu and Maxs Tupai and defensive backs Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess.
The aforementioned players range in age from 17 (Burgess) to 19 (Thompson), but each of the teenagers has made an impact in the first 10 days of camp.
“In this class, there will be some who will play right away and there are some who are stacked behind seniors and will be ready to be major players next year,” Whittingham said.
Whitingham cites “overall size, physicality and athleticism” as key traits the new guys have and in the case of the 6-foot-5 Fotu and the 6-3 Anae, “length.”
Anae has moved into the backup spot at left end behind senior Kylie Fitts, who is being projected as an all-league defensive lineman in the Pac-12 this year. That’s quite an accomplishment, considering the D-line is one of Utah’s deepest positions.
Anae is the nephew of Robert Anae, who played and coached at BYU and is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia.
So why didn’t young Anae follow his uncle to Virginia?
“I didn’t take a visit there, because there was a big blizzard going on there. So if I couldn’t see what was going on, I couldn’t make a decision,” said Anae, who also considered Vanderbilt. Actually it wasn’t just that, as Anae liked the U. coaches and the idea of playing in the Pac-12, which is closer to his home in Hawaii.
“The game is obviously way faster, but I like it — it’s still football,” he said. “The guys are bigger, but it’s not unexpected. You come as a freshman and you know everyone is going to be bigger than you.”
Simpkins, Thompson and Huntley all came to Utah from Florida, thanks to some persuasive recruiting by Dennis Erickson, a former coach at the University of Miami.
The 5-10, 184-pound Simpkins played at the same high school as Huntley (Hallandale), where he caught 38 passes for seven touchdowns. The two of them graduated early from high school and participated in spring football.
Simpkins, who's a backup at the "H" receiver position, feels he’s adjusted well to Utah, particularly to the altitude because he’s been in the state since the spring.
“Everybody wants to stay in Florida, but I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I wanted to do something different and experience new things outside the state of Florida.”
He says his main attributes are his “quickness” and “football smarts,” the latter perhaps due to playing quarterback in high school before being switched to receiver as a senior.
Thompson is the backup at Mac linebacker behind junior Sunia Tauteoli. At 5-10, 225 pounds, he almost looks more like a defensive back, but he’s nearly the exact same size as Gionni Paul, another Floridian who starred for the Utes at linebacker the past two years, leading the team with 117 tackles in 2015.
Like Paul, Thompson is known for his aggressiveness and “going 100 percent all the time.”
Thompson said he didn’t even know about Paul until he arrived in Utah, but is happy to be part of the “Florida pipeline,” which includes nine players on this year’s squad.
“I was trying to get away from the negative influence of Florida and for a different experience and to meet new people,” he said. “I like Utah. Every day you wake up and see mountains and everything’s just beautiful up here.”
Huntley had a good spring game, completing 17 of 26 passes for 233 yards to lead his team to victory. He was listed alongside Troy Williams and Brandon Cox on the initial two-deep chart this fall, but now is the co-backup with Cox, with Williams listed as No. 1.
Whittingham is high on Fotu and Tupai, who are both local products. More than once this fall, he's praised the 6-5, 300-pound Fotu, who played for Herriman High School, where he was the Deseret News 5A MVP last year. The 6-1, 257-pound Tupai was a 4A first-team all-stater and also has a bright future.
The 6-1,180-pound Blackmon is another local product, having played receiver and defensive back for Layton High School, while Burgess starred at the same two positions for San Marcos High School, near San Diego.