Pac-12 preview: Utah

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

SALT LAKE CITY -- The University of Utah football team was in need of repair after the Utes ended a nine-year run of bowl appearances with last year's 5-7 finish.
"We need to win now. There isn't time to rebuild. We need to win now." Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly said.
A quick fix is needed the most at offense, where the Utes struggled the most under young and untested offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, a former quarterback with the program. The Utes ranked No. 108 nationally in total offense, averaging just 324.4 yards per game. They also averaged only 66.4 plays a game, which put a strain on their defense.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who is feeling the heat to succeed in the Pac-12 after the program left the Mountain West Conference in 2011, hired long-time coach Dennis Erickson to work with Johnson to improve the offense. Erickson is Utah's fifth coordinator to work with the offense in the last five years.
"We have to get better," said Whittingham, who is 7-11 in Pac-12 games the last two seasons. "Last year was just unacceptable."
Whittingham has given Erickson, 65, the final say in play calling, although Erickson said he will share the load with Johnson, 26, to allow for Johnson to grow as an offensive coordinator. Erickson, a former head coach in the Pac-12 at Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State, intends to install more no-huddle, one-back sets to open up the Utes' offense.
Returning quarterback Travis Wilson, tall but mobile at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, is showing confidence in Erickson's system thanks to their time together in spring drills. He will operate behind an experienced offensive line with six players returning with extensive experience.
As usual, the quarterback, Wilson is the key. The Utes' offense will depend on Wilson's leadership despite the fact he is only a sophomore. Whittingham and Erickson have shared only positive comments about Wilson through spring practice and the early part of the fall workouts
Still, there were lingering concerns, including a bad ankle, until Saturday's scrimmage. In that, Wilson completed 12 of 18 for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
Willingham called that the highlight of the scrimmage with "a lot of positives," according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
"He is throwing accurately and he knows what's going on," added Erickson.
If Wilson does not perform well or gets injured, the Utes must rely on former walk-on quarterback Adam Schulz, who has also shown promise during fall camp running the spread offense.
Up front, offensive tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, who started at right tackle as a freshman last year, will move to the left side and is expected to contend for league honors.
This year's newcomer to watch is running back Devontae Booker, who originally signed with Washington State in 2009 after a sensational career at Grant Union High School (Sacramento, Calif.), where he rushed for 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns as a senior.
Booker joins Utah after a stopover at Sacramento's American River Junior College where last year he rushed for 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns and had nine receptions for 58 yards and two touchdowns. The durable 5-11, 205-pounder is also special as a returner.
On the defensive side, the Utes have two major concerns: Shutting down opponents in the red zone and competing better against the Pac-12's spread offenses. The Utes ranked No. 7 in the league allowing 33 touchdowns in the red zone and they allowed 395 yards per game to conference opponents.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Utes remain in the state of Utah through September. In fact, they do not play in another state until they travel to Tucson to play Arizona on Oct. 19, seven games into the season. The first three games are at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City against a dangerous Utah State team (Aug. 29), Weber State (Sept. 7) and Oregon State (Sept. 14). The Utes then play in Provo against rival BYU on Sept 21. They end the month of September with a bye week before returning home to face UCLA and Stanford. Although they play their first three Pac-12 games at home, they must play on the road in four of their last six games.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Utah has not started and finished with the same quarterback since the undefeated 2008 season when co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson played the position. "We haven't had continuity since then and that has to change, has got to happen," Whittingham told the Salt Lake Tribune. "The quarterback play is so important, it can't be understated how big it is." Sophomore Travis Wilson, the incumbent quarterback, will be pushed by sophomore Adam Schulz and newcomer Brandon Cox. Wilson went 3-4 as a starter last season after Jordan Wynn was forced to retire due to injuries.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Last year, Utah converted a meager 33.5 percent of its third-down conversions to rank last in the Pac-12. Utah has ranked 10th and 12th in the conference in the past two years, respectively, in third-down conversions. Whittingham is counting on the hire of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson to open up the offense and get better yardage on first- and second-down plays to increase the success rate on third down. The Utes' lack of ability to move the ball last year caused them to average only 66.4 plays a game last season.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.