Utah's coaching staff, led by Kyle Whittingham, is feeling the heat after consecutive 5-7 seasons and a declining record in the Pac-12 from when the Utes joined the conference in 2011.
The Cougars have gone from 4-5 in 2011, to 3-6 in 2012, to 2-7 last season. The combined record in the three years (9-18) is a significant drop from Utah's final three seasons in the Mountain West (21-3).
The contracts of Whittingham's staff members have short-term consequences.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the only members of the staff whose deals run past June 30, 2015, are the three newcomers -- offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, offensive line coach Jim Harding and receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield. All were hired after last season and all have two years on their deals from the day they were hired. Everybody else only has the 10 months leading up to July.
Defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Kalani Sitake, safeties coach and recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley and running backs coach Dennis Erickson are among those in lame-duck status until the end of June.
This season is critical. Whittingham, whose contract runs through 2016, is on notice to improve. In case he is terminated, Utah will pay him $750,000 plus other additional earnings per year through the length of the contract.
Utah's schedule is no relief. Five of the Utes' league opponents (Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Arizona State) are ranked in the preseason Top 25. The Utes open with their easiest game -- Thursday against visiting Idaho State.
The Utes must also play a strong Fresno State program and travel to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. Utah goes on the road in the Pac-12 to play UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford.
"It's an absolute grind," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Whittingham's former boss at Utah, told the Desert News about Whittingham's predicament in the Pac-12. "Every week you're facing a team that's as even as you or sometimes more talented than you. It takes a while to develop depth."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Travis Wilson was cleared to play this season after it was feared he may have a career-ending intracranial injury. He must adapt to a new offensive philosophy under offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. The Utes will play at a faster, no-huddle tempo, which will be a test for Wilson, who can run but is known more for his passing. After missing most of the last three weeks of last season, Wilson will also be in live competition for the first time since then when Utah opens against Idaho State on Thursday. All eyes will be on Wilson for how he handles the challenge.
--WR Dres Anderson is the conference's top returning receiver and will be more dangerous if QB Travis Wilson remains healthy while the deeper receiving corps plays to its potential. Anderson led the Utes in all major receiving categories by hauling in 53 passes for 1,002 yards, grabbing seven touchdowns and averaging 83.5 yards per game. His 18.9 yards per catch led the Pac-12 and his seven receptions of 50 yards or more were tied for the most in the nation.
--DE Nate Orchard hasn't missed a game since joining the Utes in 2011. He's appeared in 37 games -- making 102 tackles (54 solo) with 17.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, seven pass deflections, 6.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. In last season's upset of fifth-ranked Stanford, Orchard forced two fumbles and recorded two sacks.
SERIES HISTORY: Utah has a 6-0 edge in the series with Idaho State, including a 5-0 mark in Salt Lake City. The Utes have won by an average of 38.7 points per game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In ways, it seems like a hundred years. And in ways it seems like just a few years. So I guess it's just what day you catch me on and how things are going." -- Kyle Whittingham, commenting on his 10th year as the Utes' head coach.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Coach Kyle Whittingham has mentioned that the Utes will likely go with a three-player running back rotation of Tyler McCormick, Bubba Poole and Devontae Booker. McCormick has emerged from being a potential complementary back to a feature back this fall. "He's an explosive player, continues to make big plays," offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said. "We've got at least three playmakers at tailback we feel real good about."
Scouting the passing game: After beating Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson for the starting quarterback role, Travis Wilson can concentrate on improving his passing game. Wilson completed 56 percent of his passes in an injury-shortened season last year with 16 touchdowns and as many interceptions. Wilson must respond to the up-tempo offense of coordinator Dave Christensen, the former Wyoming coach. To Wilson's advantage, he has one of the nation's best receivers in Dres Anderson. Utah has good, quality depth at the receiver position, including Kenneth Scott, who is back after missing most of last season with an injury.
Scouting the run defense: LB Jason Whittingham, the head coach's nephew, is the top returning tackler (81) from a front seven that will miss defensive end Trevor Reilly (16 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks). LB Jared Norris (64 tackles) has starting experience. DT Nate Orchard had 3.5 sacks last season, but he is the only returning starter on the defensive line.
Scouting the pass defense: Utah's pass defense lacked big-play punch last season, recording only three interceptions all season. The Utes have more experience, which should be a benefit. S Eric Rowe is the top returner; CB Davion Orphey is also a returning starter. Rowe had 69 tackles last season and seven pass breakups. Orphey finished the year with 33 tackles and five pass breakups. The unit will also benefit from the return of S Brian Blechen, who missed last season due to a knee injury.
Scouting the special teams: Utah is one of the best in the Pac-12 in this regard. Andy Phillips was impressive as a freshman, connecting on 17 of 20 field goal attempts, including a 51-yarder. Punter Tom Hackett averaged a league-best 43.4 yards per punt. WR Dres Anderson is dangerous as a return man.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--WR Dres Anderson (No. 19 receiver, 132nd overall) -- Anderson, like his father Flipper Anderson of UCLA and the NFL, has big-play potential with every snap. The junior led the Pac-12 and was 12th in the country in yards per catch (18.91) in 2013, while finishing fourth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (83.5). He was tied for first in the nation in receptions of 50 yards or longer (seven).
--CB Eric Rowe (No. 15 cornerback, 122nd overall) -- A three-year starter and All-Pac-12 pick at free safety, Rowe is moving to cornerback in 2014 to help ease the loss of Keith McGill, a fourth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders. Rowe's size (6-2, 190), athleticism and speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash) give him an opportunity to excel at cornerback or safety.
--DE Nate Orchard (No. 20 defensive end, 195th) -- An athletic player on the outside, Orchard, a senior, originally started at Utah as a wide receiver. At 6-4 and 255 pounds, Orchard projects to be a linebacker in the NFL.
--S Andre Godfrey had his left foot in a boot and was on crutches last week. Asked about Godfrey, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it's not the team's policy to comment on injuries that are not season-ending.
--CB Reginald Porter is out for the season because of a knee injury sustained last week.
--LB Uaea Masina, who missed some of fall camp with minor injuries, is expected to start at the stud linebacker position against Idaho State on Thursday.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Kyle Whittingham
- Dave Christensen
- Travis Wilson