Prior to the start of the college football season this fall, Utah tight end Brant Kuithe was all set to become a household name in the college and NFL sports world.
He finished last season by earning all-Pac-12 second team honors — totaling 34 catches for 602 yards and six touchdowns, while adding another 102 yards rushing on six attempts and three more scores on the season. Hunter Bryant of Washington, who is now signed with the Detroit Lions, earned first-team honors last year.
He had two major breakout games last season — against UCLA when he caught five passes for 132 yards and a score — and against Colorado when he caught three passes for 63 yards and two scores while adding two rushes for 59 yards and a touchdown.
"He’s just a tremendous athlete and it’s not anything we scripted differently other than he just happened to shake free more often than he had in the past," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the UCLA game last season. "He has been playing really great football for us all year long, but he’s a tremendous weapon. He’s a tough match-up. ... He’s only a sophomore too."
“I don’t know if teams really know how to account for him because he can’t be covered by a linebacker and even safeties struggle with him,” Whittingham said. “One of the strengths of Andy (Ludwig, Utah offensive coordinator) is he puts guys in position to maximize their ability and what they do best. He’s certainly done that with Brant.”
Kuithe came into this season with as much fanfare as any Ute, garnering all-Pac-12 preseason honors and a number of All-American preseason honors. So when he was essentially shutdown (4 catches, 23 yards) by USC during Utah's season opening 33-17 loss last weekend, it was entirely shocking considering the hype entering the year.
"The thing we didn't count on was not being productive on offense," Whittingham said postgame against USC. "We thought we'd be much more productive offensively, we have a veteran group. It's tough to win games when you turn the ball over five times — one of those turnovers was a Hail Mary at the end — and only score 10 points offensively. ... We need to get Brant Kuithe the ball to more."
Taking the next step forward on offense — and hoping leading to a victory — the Utes must get Kuithe, wide receiver Bryan Thompson and the rest of the pass-catchers more involved.
Unfortunately for Utah, starting quarterback Jake Bentley and those group of pass-catchers will have their toughest test of this season when they face Washington and its vaunted secondary. That's why the winner of this matchup will be essential in deciding the outcome of the game.
Kuithe and Thompson have the potential to be game-changers while Samson Nacua, Solomon Enis, Dalton Kincaid and Cole Fotheringham are phenomenal complimentary pieces. Offensive coordinator alluded to as much during fall camp, even noting that the offense will be tailored around the strengths of the unit.
"We're committed to doing whatever it takes to win," Ludwig said. "So if the strength of the offense is on the perimeter, and the quarterbacks are up to the task, then things will open up, and I really feel like last year we played to the strengths of who we were and stayed true to who we were through the course of the season.
One huge things Utah has going for itself against Washington is the expected return of Britain Covey, who missed last week's opener against USC with a hamstring issue. Expected to be a full-go this weekend, Covey is the sort of dynamic difference-maker that can really open up the offense.
So dangerous in the open field, Covey serves as a phenomenal outlet and somebody who can win one-on-one battles out of the slot. This forces opponents to not sit back in coverage and double-team Kuithe and Thompson, much of what you saw the Trojans did.
There's also the expectation that Bentley will look much sharper this week after being able to go through an entire week as the No. 1 guy. He entered the game against USC early in the second quarter after presumed starter Cam Rising went dow with an injury — and it's since been reported that Rising is done for the season and Bentley is now 'the guy.'
Utah has the size, speed and athleticism to thrive in the passing game with all of its weapons. Doing so will then open up the running game, making the Utes difficult to defend. But it all starts with getting Kuithe, Thompson, Covey and co. rolling early.
There might not be another position group in the Pac-12 the reloads better than the Washington secondary. It seems that every season there is a Husky or two who's in the running for All-American status and looking at being chosen as a high-round NFL draft pick.
Two years ago, Washington sent three members of its starting secondary to the NFL, so the team was youthful last season. But most of them return this season, being led by senior Elijah Molden and sophomores Trent McDuffie and Asa Turner.
Molden is the smallest of the group but by far the most talented, with some recent NFL mock drafts have him going in either the first or second round. Turner and senior Keith Taylor are both big, listed at 6-foot-3. That height should pair well when going up against Utah's Thompson (6-foot-3) and Kuithe (6-foot-2).
This is a unit that os very sound technically, with nearly everyone of them comfortable covering players on an island. They're also physical, having no problem coming up to make a tackle in space.
The Huskies have shutdown both Oregon State and Arizona's passing games in the first two weeks — albeit neither offense was expected to be dynamic throwing the ball. Washington will try to take away Utah's short passing game, rather forcing Bentley to throw over the top of the defense where the Huskies have the advantage with their size and height.
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