The least you should know about the 2011 Utes. Part of Pac-12 Week.
• Double the uncertainty, double the fun. "Transition year" is the kind of cliché that litters the pages of preseason previews everywhere, but it's also the kind of cliché that was coined to describe Utah in 2011, on two fronts. One is internal: The offense loses virtually all of last year's most productive starters at the skill positions and on the front line, at the same time it's transitioning to a more pro-style philosophy under a new coordinator, venerable pocket-passing guru Norm Chow. The bigger transition by far, though, is the move from the friendly, predictable confines of the Mountain West to the much greener — and much less friendly — pastures of the Pac-12.
If you're thinking that looks like an awful lot of red in the schedule box to the right, that's because it is: At once, the Utes' culture of success, the heavy attrition in the starting lineup, the step up in week-to-week degree of difficulty, their solid track record against the Pac-10 over the last decade and the lucky absence of North Division overlords Oregon and Stanford from the conference slate combine to make them one of the most unpredictable outfits in the country. From this vantage point, at least six Pac-12 games and non-conference trips to BYU and Pittsburgh all look like they could go either way, putting the Utes in position to take their new conference by storm, or run head-first into a sobering dose of reality, or land just about anywhere in between.
• Chow time. It's been six years now since Urban Meyer left Salt Lake City for fame and fortune at Florida, but the basic structure of the balanced, shotgun-based spread scheme he introduced in 2003 have continued to more or less guide the offense in the meantime. The most obvious departure from that blueprint has been the gradual abandonment of the quarterback as a running threat with the offense in the hands of Jordan Wynn, who (including sacks) has carried the ball 41 times for a net gain of one yard since taking over as the starter midway through his freshman season in 2009. With Chow en route from UCLA to take over the offense, they can drop the pretense and go West Coast full-time.
Either way, it will be Wynn's offense all the way: Leading rushers Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata are both gone, along with starting receivers Jereme Brooks and Shaky Smithson, taking over 60 percent of last year's total offense with them on the way out. A pair of All-MWC linemen, Caleb Schlauderaff and Zane Taylor, are on their way out, too; so is Wynn's top backup, Terrance Cain, for good measure. The leading candidates at tailback in the spring were a true freshman in his first semester on campus (Harvey Langi), a newly arrived juco transfer (John White) and a former pro rugby player (Thretton Palamo).
• Wynning. On the other hand, Wynn remains an enigma himself. In keeping with the team's late-season fade on the heels of an 8-0 start, he followed a blistering October run last year with brutal efforts in the three biggest games of the season, back-to-back losses to TCU and Notre Dame and a last-second escape against BYU two weeks later. In those three games, he hit barely 50 percent of his passes with four interceptions to just two touchdowns, and the Utes managed a grand total of 27 points.
Wynn subsequently sat out the bowl game with a shoulder injury that also sidelined him for the spring, postponing his on-field initiation in Chow's system and some of the progress of the offense as a whole. As long as he's healthy, though, there's no question the offense is his show.
• Second-level story. Faced with replacing veteran tackle machines Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright at linebacker, the Utes crossed their fingers last September and trotted out two former walk-ons, Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, neither of whom had ever started a game at linebacker or anywhere else. Opposing offenses noticed no difference: Walker and Martinez finished first and second on the team with more than 200 total tackles between them, leading a unit that finished second in the Mountain West — behind only national leader TCU — in both rushing and scoring defense, and led the league in sacks.
The overachievers will be joined by a far less subtle talent, sophomore Brian Blechen, who won multiple Freshman All-America nods last year as a safety and moved down in the spring to add more speed to a corps that was already in on pretty much every play as it was. The only downside: Blechen's position switch and cornerback Brandon Burton's premature exit for the draft leaves the secondary to a gaggle of candidates with zero career starts between them.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.