SALT LAKE CITY — Tyler Huntley, Chase Hansen, Britain Covey, Zack Moss, Bradlee Anae and Marquise Blair all had impressive performances in Utah’s season-opening victory over Weber State.
Huntley threw for almost 300 yards and four touchdowns. Hansen racked up four tackles, including two for a loss. Covey was the team’s leader in both receptions and receiving yards (seven catches for 79 yards), while Moss reeled off a career best 86-yard touchdown run as part of a 150-yard night. Anae had four tackles, two pass breakups (PBU’s) and a tackle for loss and Blair, in his return to the gridiron, had three tackles and two PBU’s.
Those performances, from those particular Utes, were mostly expected. Those six are among the most experienced and talented players on the roster, and the expectation will be for each of them to continue to produce at a high level all season.
But all were outdone Thursday night by John Penisini.
Penisini, a junior defensive tackle from West Jordan, isn’t all that well-known.
Heading into the Weber State game and continuing into this Saturday’s contest against the Northern Illinois Huskies, Penisini was and is a backup.
He hasn’t been at Utah his whole collegiate career. He began his college football journey in Ephraim at Snow College after earning an All-State honorable mention designation as a senior at West Jordan High School. Penisini recorded 92 tackles and six sacks that year.
As a freshman at Snow College, Penisini earned an All-Western States Football League honorable mention, thanks to 40 tackles — 6.5 of which were for a loss — as well as three sacks and a forced fumble.
He sat out the 2016 season after transferring to Utah, a school he said was always his dream to attend, and last year, as a sophomore, appeared in 12 games. He even started one — but you wouldn’t know it.
He recorded a tackle in just two contests, the highlight of which was a three-tackle outing against Arizona State.
Throughout fall camp, Penisini was just one of a group, a talented and deep group of linemen to be sure, but just one of at least eight the Utes expected to contribute.
“We think when all is said and done we will have eight guys at least,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told the Deseret News. “That’s ideal. If you have two complete sets that you can put in and rotate and have no drop-off — or very little drop-off — that’s a huge luxury.”
Against the Wildcats, Penisini was indeed part of that group, a defensive front that held Weber State to just 46 yards rushing, only he was the standout.
He recorded a team-best six tackles, including three for loss, a performance that drew praise from Whittingham, as well as his teammates (Blair singled Penisini out after the game, noting that he had the best individual play, on one of his tackles for loss, as well as the best overall performance).
For Penisini, the season-opener was everything he could have hoped for. So much so that he seemed to forget he played at all last year.
“I don’t know, I was just in the moment,” Peninsi said of his standout performance. “I didn’t really know what to do. It was my first game actually playing. I just took the things coach (Gary) Andersen said — read the blocks, follow the blocks — and that is all I did.”
Selective memory loss or not, Penisini was dominant, a fact he credited to his coach.
“It was all Coach A. He told us to read our keys and that they’ll take us where we need to go. Emotions were high, I was really nervous, but we prepped really well for the game. It was a great experience and really fun.”
THE FIRST TIME: For 19 Utes, not counting Penisini, the game against the Wildcats was indeed their Utah debut. Seven of those are true freshmen, and some, like Cole Fotheringham and Solomon Enis, made waves with their performances.
“I was nervous. It was my first college football game,” Fotheringham, who scored a touchdown, said. “I was on the kickoff, so luckily the nerves just went right away after that and I was ready to play. It was awesome. I felt the energy of the crowd and just fed off of that.”
“It was amazing,” added Enis, who hauled in two catches for 34 yards. “It was what I expected it to be, coming out of the tunnel with the motorcycle, the crowd just screaming. I had a lot of fun with it, a lot of fun with my teammates.
“Honestly I wasn’t nervous at all,” he continued. “I think since we prepared so well I just felt comfortable and once my number was called I just tried to do the best I could.
“It felt just like I was a senior in high school. I felt good, I was playing football again. It was cool to see myself on the Jumbotron, I was like, dang … I am really up there. It was fun. We had a lot of fun.”
Utah (1-0) at Northern Illinois (0-1)
- Huskie Stadium — DeKalb, Illinois
- Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
- TV: ESPNews
- Radio: ESPN 700AM