Utah's first season in the Pac-12 went well, thanks to a defense that led the conference in points allowed and finished in the top three in total defense, rush defense and pass efficiency defense.
The Utes had a shot at playing in the inaugural conference championship game, but inexplicably lost to Colorado in the regular-season finale. Utah managed just 14 points in that one, and the low total was indicative of an offense that had problems.
JC transfer John White rushed for a school single-season record 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns, but the passing offense was tepid and too much of the burden was placed on White.
Coordinator Norm Chow left to become coach at Hawaii, and quarterback coach Brian Johnson, a former Utes signal caller, was promoted to coordinator. Johnson, 25, will be the youngest coordinator in the nation. He is expected to add elements of the spread attack he ran so well at Utah. The skill-position guys appear to be in place, but getting consistent quarterback play is going to be the key to the season.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in Pac-12 (tied for 3rd in Pac-12 South)
Coach: Kyle Whittingham (66-25, 8th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (9) – G Sam Brenner, WR DeVonte Christopher, WR Reggie Dunn, QB Jon Hays, G Miles Mason, WR Luke Matthews, TE Kendrick Moeai, C Tevita Stevens, TB John White. Defense (7) – SS Brian Blechen, E Joe Kruger, T Dave Kruger, CB Ryan Lacy, T Star Lotulelei, LB Trevor Reilly, FS Eric Rowe. Special teams (2) – K Coleman Peterson, P Sean Sellwood.
Fast fact: Utah has won at least eight games nine seasons in a row.
Johnson's work with junior QB Jordan Wynn will be vital to the Utes' success. Wynn has had a roller-coaster career at Utah. Coaches had planned to redshirt him as a freshman in 2009, but ended up throwing him into the fray in the second half of Game 8; he started the rest of the way. He started 10 games in 2010, missing three games with injuries, and threw for 2,334 yards, 17 TDs and 10 interceptions. Last season, he played in just four games before being lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
Wynn has solid credentials as a passer, but is not a runner, so it will be interesting to see how Johnson adapts the offense to Wynn's skill set. Senior Jon Hays, who started after Wynn was injured, is the likely backup; he is a try-hard guy, but has limited skills. If Wynn were to get hurt again, it would be interesting to see if Utah turned to true freshman Chase Hansen, who enrolled early and went through spring drills.
White is back, which is great news for the offense. He finished second in the league in rushing, to LaMichael James, and has a legitimate chance to lead the conference this fall. White is not a big guy (5 feet 8/186 pounds), but he is tough and durable; he can turn the corner but also is quite comfortable running between the tackles. His backup likely will be Kelvin York, a four-star prospect who was the No. 9 junior college player in the nation. At one time he was a USC commitment. He suffered a knee injury last fall. Utah has two or three other backs who could see time, as well; in short, this is a stocked position for the Utes.
The receiving corps looks good, too. The receivers weren't as productive as they should have been last season because of quarterback issues. The Utes return their top four wide receivers, and senior DeVonte Christopher leads the way. He has the ability to get deep, as does senior Reggie Dunn. Senior Luke Matthews and sophomores Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson round out the top quintet, all of whom have the talent to make 30 catches. Only Christopher (42) caught that many passes last season.
TEs Jake Murphy and Kendrick Moeai can be useful weapons, as can H-Back Dallin Rogers. He was third on the team with 22 receptions last season, but is coming off an ACL injury.
The line returns the three starters in the interior, but the Utes will miss Ts Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. Senior C Tevita Stevens is entering his fourth season as a starter and is an all-league candidate. Senior G Sam Brenner also is an experienced hand. Senior Miles Mason started at guard last season, but has been moved to tackle. That opens a starting spot at guard for junior Jeremiah Tofaeono, who will have to hold off junior Latu Heimuli, a former defensive lineman who started twice last season.
Mason is the top contender at right tackle, where he will try to hold off redshirt freshman Daniel Nielson and JC transfer Carlos Lozano, who is absolutely mammoth (6-6/385) but did not go through spring ball. If Lozano can do the job, Mason could move back to guard. At left tackle, junior Percy Taumoelau will battle JC transfer Marc Pouvave.
The Utes return seven starters on this side of the ball: three along the line, three in the secondary and one at linebacker.
At nose tackle, senior Star Lotulelei is the nation's best. Lotulelei (pronounced Lo-too-leh-lay) was a first-team All-Pac-12 pick last season and was named the league's best defensive lineman. He is incredibly strong, yet also has a quick first step and the ability to be disruptive. He is seen as a sure-fire top-10 pick in the 2013 NFL draft and could go in the top five.
He'll line up alongside senior T Dave Kruger, who will be a four-year starter. He has added 15 pounds in the offseason and is up to 300. His brother, Joe, will be a starting end; Joe started to become a solid all-around end last season. The other starting end likely will be sophomore Nate Fakahafua, who played some last season as a reserve because of his pass-rush ability. Depth looks good across the line; keep an eye on JC transfer Visesio "Junior" Salt, who will play tackle.
The safety duo of Brian Blechen (strong) and Eric Rowe (free) is one of the best on the West Coast. They combined for 147 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups. The top three corners are seniors: starters Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee and backup Keith McGill. Lacy is a returning starter who had two interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season, while Lee and McGill played solidly last season.
Utah's top two tackles last season were LBs Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, and there is no easy replacement for either one. Sophomore V.J. Fehoko looked good in the spring, and he likely will start in the middle. Trevor Reilly, who also can play end, is the one returning starter at the position; he had 47 tackles and five sacks last season. The other starter? It likely will be either sophomore Jacoby Hale or redshirt freshman L.T. Filiaga, who rejoined the team in January after a two-year Mormon mission. Depth is a big concern at linebacker; there is no proven talent outside of Reilly.
P Sean Sellwood averaged 45.0 yards per attempt last season and should contend for all-league honors. K Coleman Petersen has a strong leg and made a league-high 18 field goals last season, with a long of 48. But is accuracy from beyond 40 is spotty (4-of-9 last season).
Dunn is a solid kick returner, but the Utes need a new punt returner.
The Utes had some of the best coverage teams in the nation last fall, and that shouldn't change.
The best news? Neither Oregon nor Stanford is on the schedule. But there are back-to-back games against USC and UCLA, which means the Utes should know by mid-October where they will finish in the Pac-12 South standings.
The Utes open with a gimme against FCS member Northern Colorado, but that's really it for easy games. The other non-conference contests are against state foes BYU and Utah State. Then, three of the first four league games are on the road.
Still, outside the contest with USC (and that game is in Salt Lake City), the schedule isn't overwhelming by any means.
A lot depends on Wynn. If he plays to his talent level, the Utes will win nine or 10 games. If he struggles, it will be more of the same from last season, when the offense became all about White and eventually bogged down at crucial times.
There is a nice group of receivers, so the passing attack should be at least adequate. And the defense has a chance to again be one of the top three in the league. Lotulelei is a stud and makes everybody around him that much better. The special teams should be good, too.
Year Two in the Pac-12 should be better than Year One.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 40th nationally
The buzz: The Utes did a fine job of landing one of the state's top players in QB Chase Hansen, who put up huge numbers in his prep career, They also signed Nevada's second-best player in four-star G Cedrick Poutasi and hit Texas and the junior college ranks for other top talent. It was a miss to lose the state's top player, Pleasant Grove G Brandon Fanaika, to Stanford, but with the additions of junior college DT Visesio Salt, four-star WR Justin Thomas and junior college RB Kelvin York, the Utes are bringing in talented players who can contribute early. – Adam Gorney, Rivals.com
CB Mo Lee. He was lights out during the spring and looks poised to have a big season. He is a former junior college transfer who redshirted in 2010 for the Utes, then played a lot last season, finishing with three interceptions, six pass breakups and 29 tackles. He was recruited as a wide receiver but moved to the secondary. He is from Miami and went to junior college in the San Diego area. – Dan Sorensen, UteZone.com
For more on Utah throughout the season, check out UteZone.com
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