No. 14: Utah
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 20, 2012
Utah needs Kyle Whittingham to step forward with a plan to address the program’s newest test. In the big picture, Utah wants to be as successful in the Pac-12 as it was in the Mountain West, where it won 33 games from 2008-10. While most programs would be happy with an eight-win debut against a tougher class of opponent, Utah is long past the days when eight wins is anything more than simply satisfactory – the program has bigger eyes for a bigger prize. More specifically, Whittingham, Utah and new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, the former quarterback, need to carve out an identity on offense to go with a rock-steady defense. It’s an important task on multiple fronts: Utah needs an offense to take a step forward in the win column; needs an offense to keep pace with the Pac-12’s recent move towards offensive potency, as seen by several recent hires; and needs an offense to give balance to a team that won’t win more than eight games on the back of its defense alone. U.S.C. is waiting in the wings, and Utah’s hopes at knocking off another giant hinges on the development of this offense.
Salt Lake City, Utah
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 7
at Utah St.
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
at Arizona St.
- Oct. 4
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
at Oregon St.
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 23
Last year’s prediction
So I think the Utes have a Virginia Tech-like debut in the Pac-12, hitting the ground running in their first season – against the odds and ahead of expectations, it’s safe to say. But this isn’t a great team, not one that lines up with a few of the program’s recent powers. The offense will have some growing pains, and the defense has a few issues to address before we get fully on board. Utah has the good fortune of playing in a wide-open South division, which will help. I think we’ll see the Utes float around a national ranking all season, and should win eight or nine games in the regular season.
In a nutshell Was it the season Utah may have envisioned? Probably not; this is a program accustomed to running roughshod over conference opposition, so that the Utes finished a game under .500 in Pac-12 play was certainly a change, to put it lightly. Yet there was much to like about this team, beginning with the fact that the Utes were able to cobble together eight wins despite two significant disadvantages: the increased level of competition and the program’s worst offense in a decade. The Utes finished last in the Pac-12 in passing and scoring offense, and needed every ounce of energy from its defense, which was ready for the conference change, to win at least eight games for sixth consecutive season. Was the program as a whole ready for the move to the Pac-12? There’s little doubt that Utah was ready, and is ready, once the offense catches up, to battle U.S.C. for South division supremacy.
High point A 54-10 win over B.Y.U., in my estimation. However, a comment from a post during the offseason suggested that a Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech was the high point of the season.
Low point An ugly start, what with the painful loss to U.S.C. and three ugly setbacks to Washington, Arizona State and California. On the other hand, nothing nears a 17-14 loss at home to Colorado to end the regular season. It was the Buffaloes’ first road win as a member of the Pac-12, not to mention the program’s first true road win since beating Texas Tech in 2007.
Tidbit Utah loved playing on The Mtn. Network, going 24-7 in games broadcast on the station, which is unfortunate; The Mtn. closed up shop earlier this summer. Utah was also solid when aired on the Versus Network, going 9-3, but Versus has morphed into the NBC Sports Network, so it’s hard to know if the trend continues in a new zip code. Historically, the Utes are at their best when playing on ABC: Utah is 11-2-1 in games played on the network, with the losses coming against San Diego State in 1991 and Air Force in 2000.
Tidbit (bowl games edition) Utah’s bowl winning percentage is the best in the F.B.S. among teams that have played in 10 or more bowl games. The Utes are 13-4 in the postseason, taking bowl games at a 76.5 percent clip, which is far ahead of the next-best team, U.S.C. (65.6 percent). The only team with a bowl winning percentage over 70.0 percent, the Utes are one of six teams with a winning percentage over 60.0 percent – U.S.C., Mississippi, Oklahoma State, Auburn, Florida State and Oklahoma.
Former players in the N.F.L.
31 DE James Aiono (Indianapolis), FB Matt Asiata (Minnesota), OG Zane Beadles (Denver), OT Tony Bergstrom (Oakland), CB Conroy Black (Oakland), CB Brandon Burton (Minnesota), DE Christian Cox (New England), DE Jonathan Fanene (New England), OT Jordan Gross (Carolina), WR Brian Hernandez (Philadelphia), S Robert Johnson (Tennessee), DT Maake Kemoeatu (Baltimore), LB Paul Kruger (Baltimore), CB Brice McCain (Houston), LB Koa Misi (Miami), DT Sione Puoha (New York Jets), QB Brett Ratliff (Tampa Bay), WR David Reed (Baltimore), OG Caleb Schlauderaff (New York Jets), DE Derrick Shelby (Miami), NT Sealver Siliga (Denver), CB Sean Smith (Miami), WR Steve Smith (Carolina), QB Alex Smith (San Francisco), WR Shaky Smithson (Green Bay), DT Paul Soliai (Miami), CB R.J. Stanford (Carolina), LB Stevenson Sylvester (Pittsburgh), S Justin Taplin-Ross (Dallas), C Zane Taylor (Indianapolis), S Eric Weddle (San Diego).
Arbitrary top five list
Professional athletes, last name Whit- (not “White”)
1. 2B Lou Whitaker.
2. OT Bob Whitfield.
3. CB Dave Whitsell.
4. SP Ed Whitson.
5. C Ernie Whitt.
Kyle Whittingham (B.Y.U. ’84), 65-25 over seven seasons with the Utes. He increased Utah’s win total in each season from 2005-8, from seven wins in 2005 to nine in 2007; of course, Utah set a new school-record with 13 victories in 2008. Whittingham is the first head coach in Utah history to reach bowl play in each of his first four seasons in charge, let alone his first seven. He also won each of his first five bowl games: the 2005 Emerald Bowl (by 38-10 over Georgia Tech), the 2006 Armed Forces Bowl (25-13, Tulsa), the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl (35-32, Navy), the 2008 Sugar Bowl and a 2009 win over California. That streak came to an end two year ago, with a loss to Boise State in the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl, but the Utes got back in the win column in last year’s Sun Bowl. Whittingham’s ascension to the head job, coming after Urban Meyer left for Florida, seemed like a logical move; Whittingham had been on the Utah staff for the previous 11 years, including the final 10 as defensive coordinator. When you include his 11 seasons as an assistant, Whittingham has participated in 151 wins — the second-most of any coach in the history of the program. Utah’s success over the last four seasons has vaulted Whittingham upon the national stage, and it’s about time. Utah had reason to worry about Whittingham being swayed by offers from B.C.S. conference programs, but given Utah’s move to the Pac-12, the university can feel secure in its head coach position for the foreseeable future. Now that the Utes are on the national stage Whittingham will begin to be appreciated fully for all that he’s done.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Before moving to the offensive changes, which are key, let’s touch on Utah’s one coaching move on defense. Utah has a new cornerbacks coach: Sharrief Shah, a former safety for the Utes, moves into coaching after spending the last sixteen years as an agent and commercial litigator and trial attorney for two local law firms. Strange, right? In his defense – and in Whittingham’s defense – Shah was one heck of a defensive back for the Utes, and had stayed close to the game over the last decade-plus by working as a sideline reporter for Utah’s radio broadcasts. Still, it’s a strange hire.
Now, the offense: Norm Chow is gone, as are offensive line coach Tim Davis and running backs coach Dave Schramm – to Hawaii, Florida and Fresno State, respectively. To replace Schramm, the running backs coach, Whittingham moved Jay Hill over from his work with the cornerbacks; Hill isn’t new to the offensive side of the ball, having served as Utah’s tight ends coach from 2007-9. The Utes’ new tight ends and fullbacks coach is former Utah State running backs coach Ilaisa Tuiaki, who did absolutely splendid work for the Aggies over the last three seasons. Then there’s Brian Johnson, the 25-year-old former quarterback, quarterbacks coach, wunderkind and new offensive coordinator.
Players to watch
Johnson’s new offense won’t be a spread, per se. It’ll be a “modified spread,” to use Johnson’s terms, which means the following: spread principles incorporated into a more traditional offensive scheme, one similar to the West Coast system implemented by Chow a year ago. It’ll be different, but don’t look for the spread-system bells and whistles – and don’t look for Johnson’s offense to resemble the system he ran in 2008, which tilted slightly towards the pass. It’s strange, and hard to define, but in essence, Johnson is going to take Chow’s offense, squeeze it into a ball and surround it with a spread offense.
Look for Johnson to be as innovative as he can possible be, though his hands are tied in one sense: Utah will need to roll through the running game, as it’s on the ground that the Utes butter their bread. But Johnson will absolutely do a better job getting the ball into the hands of his skill players, especially those who can make things happen in space; one of the most troubling aspect of last year’s offense was its inability to push the tempo downfield over most of the second half. I like the hire: Johnson is fresh, young, motivated, has a spread background and knows the roster and the personnel as well as anyone. He’s young, but I think that Johnson will do a good job.
First, he and Whittingham need to settle on a quarterback. It’ll eventually be junio Jordan Wynn, once the dust clears, but true freshman Travis Wilson has made things interesting since bursting on the scene with a wonderful spring camp. Experience counts, however, and that’s something Wynn has over both Wilson and senior Jon Hays, the former Nebraska-Omaha transfer who started the final nine games of last season. Hays moved into the lineup due to Wynn’s continued shoulder woes; after fighting back from right shoulder surgery last offseason, Wynn injured his left shoulder against Washington in early October.
So you wonder about the senior’s ability to stay healthy. I don’t worry about the production: Wynn has produced for this offense since moving into a starting role late in his freshman year, finding open receivers, moving the chains and avoiding turnovers nearly throughout. For 2012, if he’s healthy, Wynn is Utah’s best starting option – and I expect Whittingham and Johnson to recognize this fact before the end of fall camp. Hays is fine as a backup, especially in short doses, but look for Wilson, should he continue impressing the staff, to be Utah’s primary backup this fall and the starter in 2013.
Once Wynn went down, senior John White took over. The former JUCO transfer played very well in September, running for 150 yards in his debut and absolutely torching B.Y.U. two weeks later, but his season didn’t take off until mid-October; over the year’s final nine games – and he missed most of the Colorado loss due to injury – White ran the ball 240 times for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns. In the process, he went from a running back largely unknown outside of Utah to a Heisman candidate heading into his final season.
White’s going to get his carries, his yards and his touchdowns, not to mention more national exposure. He’ll continue to be the centerpiece of this offense, especially if Wilson nabs the starting job. But White will need more help – no other back had more than 31 carries – than he did last fall, especially if the Utes want to provide two or three different looks in the running game. With White entrenched as the starter, Utah could team him with a bigger back, JUCO transfer Kelvin York, to give this running game a great one-two pairing. While this duo will do most of the work, keep an eye out for sophomore Lucky Radley and redshirt freshman Jarrell Oliver. Most of all, watch White: he’s going to have a huge year.
A healthy Wynn will mean more touches for a talented crop of wide receivers. The Utes go five deep: seniors DeVonte Christopher (42 catches for 663 yards), Reggie Dunn (15 for 2011) and Luke Matthews (17 for 263) and sophomore Dres Anderson (23 for 355) and Kenneth Scott (8 for 141). I really like what this group can achieve in the right system, with Christopher the top target, Dunn and Matthews steady and experienced – Matthews has the size to line up at receiver and H-back, which helps – Anderson the next-level target and Scott, in a small sample size, proving himself to be a deep threat. You may wonder if Wynn can stay healthy and get these receivers the ball, but you don’t wonder if this quintet can make plays when given the opportunity.
The only question, in fact, might ask how Utah plans on setting up its starting lineup. Christopher’s a starter, even if the staff loves Scott’s blend of size and speed. Anderson’s the future, but he’s also ready to explode today; he’ll start. It’s really down to Matthews and Dunn and one spot, and that pair has been around the block long enough to split time down the middle – and remember that Matthews can do a number of things in the passing game. Utah also has a few interchangeable pieces at tight end and H-back, so look for Dallin Rogers (22 for 160) to shift between both spots once senior Kendrick Moeai’s shoulder gets back into game form.
Some things change – conference affiliation, for example. And some things don’t change – Utah’s defense, for example. The Utes might have struggled at times in the Pac-12, but the defense delivered: Utah led its new league in interceptions, red zone defense and scoring defense, limiting five conference opponents to 23 points or less and holding five opponents overall to 354 or fewer yards of total offense. Overall, the Utes allowed less than 270 points – 263 points, to be exact – for the sixth straight year, showing no signs of decline despite the far more imposing schedule. One year later, with the Utes’ feet firmly on the ground, it’s safe to expect an even stronger performance.
All Utah really needs to do is find two new starting linebackers – and it’s not easy as it sounds. For now, the Utes can take great comfort in knowing that junior Trevor Reilly (47 tackles, 5.0 sacks) returns on the strong side, where he started the final six games of last season; Reilly’s a big piece on this defense, someone who has big-play ability and the flexibility to put his hand on the ground on passing downs. He’ll be counted on to produce at an even higher level without Chaz Walker in the middle and Matt Martinez at rover, two linebackers who combined for more than 200 tackles in each of the last two years. Unfortunately – and this is really the only question mark on this defense – the Utes are lacking in experience.
There’s a youth movement underway. It’s going to be sophomore V.J. Fehoko in the middle, replacing Walker. Fehoko had a great opening month, highlighted by his fumble return against B.Y.U., but didn’t truly crack into the rotation until November, when he saw more and more snaps in a secondary role. While redshirt freshman Jared Norris is an option, I’d be shocked if Fehoko didn’t start the season opener and, potentially, for the next three years. In terms of pure speed, Utah’s best option at rover is sophomore Jacoby Hale, who is currently tied atop the depth chart with redshirt freshman L.T. Filiaga. Even if Hale starts, you could see the Utes team him with a bigger linebacker, especially if Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake go smaller up front. Sitake will continue handling the linebackers, as he’s done in the past, and he’ll get the most out of this group. But the lack of experience is a slight concern.
After sharing time last fall, seniors Ryan Lacy (51 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Mo Lee (29 tackles, 3 interceptions) will serve as the Utes’ two starting cornerbacks – the defense lost Conroy Black, who started every game on the right side. Both are up for the challenge: Lacy did a nice job last fall, showing a nose for the football and earning honorable mention all-conference honors, while Lee, a former receiver, has top-notch size and athleticism. It’s also logical to expect Lee to play with a higher comfort level as a senior; the former JUCO transfer will be in his second year on defense, after all, so the light is close to turning on. One thing Lacy’s move to full-time starting status does is open up the nickel back spot, but Utah is very confident in junior Mike Honeycutt’s ability to move from his role on special teams to help fill the void.
Where Utah’s secondary really takes off is at safety, thanks to a starting pairing that trumps any other duo in the Pac-12. Junior Brian Blechen (78 tackles, 3 interceptions), an all-conference pick both in the Mountain West as a freshman and in the Pac-12 last fall, will remain solely at strong safety after opening last season at linebacker. While you love Blechen’s ability to play along the back end and on the second level, he’s best suited at safety; Blechen is an all-conference lock. He’s joined at free safety by sophomore Eric Rowe (69 tackles), a reigning freshman all-American. Blechen is steadiness personified; Rowe brings a different level of flash. It’s an outstanding duo – and why, along with Lee and Lacy, the Utes have the best starting quartet in the Pac-12.
This defense would have been good without tackle Star Lotulelei (44 tackles, 9.0 for loss) in the middle – good, solid, strong. With Lotulelei back in the fold, having opted to remain on campus for his senior season, this defense becomes great. He’s the real deal: Lotulelei eats up linemen for lunch and dinner, demands double-teams, collapses the pocket, clogs up the running game, does the dirty work, racks up national accolades and tears up game plans, giving Utah the sort of effort and production that trickles down through each level of this defense. Simply put, there is not an offensive lineman in college football who can handle Lotulelei one-on-one – as many teams have discovered very early in the first quarter over the last two seasons. He changes the way an opponent approaches this defense. That’s high praise; it’s all deserved.
And Lotulelei makes his teammates up front better, as you might expect – though his fellow linemen are pretty good in their own right. He’s joined in the starting lineup by senior Dave Kruger (22 tackles), a four-year starter who has bulked up to around 300 pounds, giving Utah an extremely imposing pairing in the middle. As always, the Utes will go five or six deep in their interior rotation; this helps keep Lotulelei fresh, for one, but the constant recycling also places stress on opposing offensive linemen, who must deal with fresh legs every time Whittingham and Sitake rotate in another batch of tackles. For depth, the Utes will call on JUCO transfer Tenny Palepoi, along with three of four returning contributors — but not Junior Salt, another JUCO transfer who will redshirt after suffering an injury earlier this month.
There’s another Kruger at end: Joe, a junior, moves over to the right side after splitting time on the left last fall. Kruger (35 tackles, 5.0 for loss) moved up to 280 pounds to handle the workload on the right side, which should help him become a more complete player – with his height and length serving as assets on passing downs and his size helping him at the point of attack. At left end, the Utes will start Nate Fakahafua, a 250-pound sophomore whose burst off the edge could give the front four another game-changer. JUCO transfer Niasi Leota and true freshman Hunter Dimick – both enrolled early – have looked good thus far, giving Utah a pair of trustworthy but unproven reserves. The front four is fantastic.
Getting a healthy season out of redshirt freshman Charles Henderson, who played in the first four games of last season before suffering a knee injury, will give Utah’s return game a huge boost. If at 100 percent, Henderson will handle punts while Christopher and Dunn team up on kick returns. The specialists return intact: senior kicker Coleman Petersen, senior punter Sean Smallwood, junior Nick Marsh on kickoffs and senior Patrick Greene the long snapper. Utah is a more explosive return game away from having one of the two or three best groups in the Pac-12.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line The line isn’t a huge concern – not inside, at least. Two of Utah’s three returning starters can be found along the interior, in senior center Tevita Stevens and senior right guard Sam Brenner, with both fitting snugly inside the Pac-12’s four best at their respective positions. At left guard, the Utes will get a healthy Latu Heimuli, who has battled injuries, and are very happy with the play of junior Jeremiah Tofaeono, who would be the starter if the season started today. But the offensive line is the weakest personnel group on this offense for a reason: Utah is still looking for answers at tackle.
In my opinion, the best option at right tackle is senior Miles Mason, who moved outside after starting 12 games last fall at left guard. Mason’s the most experienced tackle on the roster – by a fairly substantial margin; in addition, it makes no sense for Utah to move Mason to the right side if not to hand him a major role. If not the starter, Mason will be a very valuable swing lineman, someone who can provide support on the right side and at both guard spots. For now, the Utes have redshirt freshman Daniel Nielson at right tackle and junior Percy Taumoelau on the blind side.
That might not change, but don’t be surprised if it does. For one, Mason could certainly move ahead of Nielson at right tackle – or even move back to left guard, should Heimuli suffer another injury or Tofaeono struggle. Secondly, the Utes added a pair of JUCO transfers, Carlos Lozano and Marc Pouvave, and both will be given a shot outside once they grasp the offense. The line will be fine, even if the Utes have questions still unanswered at tackle. And like the rest of this offense, it won’t be difficult for the line to slide back into a spread system.
Game(s) to watch
There’s B.Y.U. to deal with, this time in Salt Lake City, where the Utes have won four of the last five in this series. Another in-state battle with Utah State is the appetizer to that affair; while the Aggies are on the up-and-up, that’s a game the Utes shouldn’t lose. To say that this is an easy conference slate would be an understatement: Utah gets U.S.C. at home, which is huge; has Arizona State and Colorado, the two weakest teams in the South, among its Pac-12 road games; and misses Oregon and Stanford out of the North. It simply doesn’t get any better than that. The Utes can know that a win over U.S.C. doesn’t just move them into the title picture but also puts them in the driver’s seat for the South – the Utes will hold the tiebreaker and a far easier conference slate. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Having an easier schedule helps, but Utah’s good enough to make things difficult for U.S.C. based on its own coaching and talent. Much of Utah’s talent can be found on defense, where Whittingham and Sitake hope to buttress a few question marks at linebacker with the conference’s best secondary and another deep and ferocious front four – the latter group paced by the one of the nation’s top defenders. After leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense last fall, I see no reason why Utah can’t take it another step forward; the Utes could be the league’s best on this side of the ball, and even in a worst-case scenario can’t be considered any worse than third, behind Oregon and the Trojans. Simply put, this defense looks like Whittingham’s strongest since 2008.
Could this offense follow suit? Probably not – but nor will the offense sputter like it did once Wynn dropped out of the lineup last fall. I think it’s going to take Johnson some time to learn his new role, perhaps as long as a month or two, if not an entire season. But I like his general idea: Johnson wants to keep some pro-style flavor while adding a generous dash of the spread, with the goal of getting the ball to those skill players who can hurt defenses in space – he’ll feed White, but also look towards Christopher, Anderson and this receiver corps. The offense isn’t tremendous, but it’ll be improved, and it’ll be good enough to make a run in the Pac-12.
I don’t think that Utah can win the South; U.S.C. is too good, too athletic, too poised and too confident to be derailed from its path to the conference title game. I do think that the Utes will win 10 games during the regular season, however, keeping right on the Trojans’ heels for the entirety of the year’s three months. Part of this has to do with the schedule: U.S.C. is only elite team Utah will face all season, B.Y.U. the only other team that will end with a national ranking and California a third team that could fight for nine wins, but it doesn’t get much easier for a Pac-12 team. To me, the Utes lose at home to U.S.C. and drop one other conference game, perhaps to California or to one of the five road opponents – U.C.L.A. or Washington, most likely. This is a talented, well-coached, defensively-oriented squad that will fight its way to a double-digit win season. Utah is a better team than most people realize.
Dream season The Utes don’t lose a game, drawing recollections of 2008 along the way. Utah’s win over U.S.C. reverberates nationally; Utah’s 40-point win over B.Y.U. looks familiar. The Utes head into a date with Oregon in early December at 12-0.
Nightmare season The Utes lose to the Cougars, U.S.C., California and Washington. That’s not all: Utah also drops road games to Arizona State and U.C.L.A., sending it to a 6-6 regular season.
In case you were wondering
Where do Utah fans congregate? Utah fans can find solid message board chatter at UteFans.net, UteZone.com and Inside the Utes. For additional coverage, visit Block U and Lya Wodraska’s blog for The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah’s all-name nominee WR Tanqueray Towns.
Through 111 teams 454,929.
Who is No. 13? Tomorrow’s program’s last non-conference loss came in a stadium that was originally named after the brother of an individual whose professional career began with an organization that was once affiliated with a franchise whose players include an individual who led the league in plate appearances once, stolen bases four times, strikeouts once, walks once and runs once.
Tags: Brian Blechen, Brian Johnson, Coleman Petersen, Dallin Rogers, Dave Kruger, DeVonte Christopher, Dres Anderson, Eric Rowe, Ilaisa Tuiaki, Joe Kruger, John White IV, Jordan Wynn, Kelvin York, Kenneth Scott, Kyle Whittingham, Latu Heimuli, Luke Matthews, Miles Mason, Mo Lee, Nate Fakahafua, Pac-12, Ryan Lacy, Sam Brenner, Sharrief Shah, Star Lotulelei, Tevita Stevens, Travis Wilson, Trevor Reilly, Utah, V.J. Fehoko
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