The heaviest lifting is over. Now, the Utes can go about the business of planting even deeper roots in the Pac-12.
Last season had an obvious learning curve associated with the program’s shift in conference affiliation. The competition wasn’t just new; it was also significantly tougher than in the days of the Mountain West. And yet, Utah met the challenge about as well as could be expected, finishing 8-5 and winning four of its final five league games.
Coach Kyle Whittingham wants to build on that success in 2012. In fact, he already has by assembling arguably the most talented recruiting class in school history. These are exciting times in Salt Lake City, with the personnel and the stakes finally beginning to match the caliber of one of the most underrated coaching staffs in America.
On the field, the quarterbacks — past and present — will be getting a lot of the attention during the offseason. Junior Jordan Wynn is working on a return from his second season-ending shoulder injury in the last couple of years. When No. 3 is healthy, the Utes have a noticeably different spark about them. When he’s not, Utah is one-dimensional, riding the broad shoulders of star RB John White. Wynn’s new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, a former Utes QB from just a few years ago, is only 25 and about to undergo an intriguing baptism under fire.
On defense and special teams, there isn’t a lot that’s giving the assistants sleepless nights this offseason. The defense has many of the parts, including All-America-caliber NT Star Lotulelei, needed to be the toughest in the Whittingham era. And the special teams unit has no glaring weaknesses.
In the year that USC comes off probation, Utah is probably not going to win the Pac-12 South Division. Still, the Utes are surging in a northerly direction by every possible measurement. Better league. Better players. More exposure. Same crackerjack staff that continues to guide this program on a steady course to prosperity.
What to watch for on offense: Fixing the tackle issue. The Utes have to keep oft-injured QB Wynn healthy this fall. Doing so will require him to be well-protected by a new set of bookends at offensive tackle. With the graduations of Tony Bergstom and John Cullen, both all-stars in NFL camps, Utah was been left to audition a bunch of lightly experienced players in the spring such as Percy Taumoelau and Daniel Nielson. The situation becomes a lot more interesting this summer, when hulking junior-college transfer Carlos Lozano and Marc Pouvave enter the race for playing time.
What to watch for on defense: The development of the young linebackers. Junior Trevor Reilly is just fine at Stud. After him, though, the Utes get very young, very fast. In fact, at Rover and Middle, there are no upperclassmen within sight. Still, the staff likes the athleticism and potential of the group it has competing for playing time. Jacoby Hale, LT Filiaga, V.J. Fehoko and Jared Norris have a few things in common. They’re not very big, they move extremely well and they’ve got great motors. In other words, vintage Utah linebackers.
The team will be far better if: It achieves a higher degree of balance on offense. White is a force in the running game, and he’ll be getting more help this fall. However, the Utes need to be much more dangerous through the air after finishing last in the Pac-12 in passing offense — and subsequently, total offense. Naturally, any threat over the top will make life a lot easier for White. Plus, it’ll allow the team to make better use of a speedy and underutilized corps of receivers that includes DeVonte Christopher, Dres Anderson and Reggie Dunn.
The schedule: The Utes have the perfect schedule to do some very big things. Going to Utah State and dealing with the rivalry game against BYU will set things up perfectly for a Pac-12 season that couldn’t be more favorable. Not only does Utah miss Oregon and Stanford, but road trips to Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Colorado aren’t that bad. After starting out the conference slate at Arizona State the Utes get time to prepare for what should be the North title game against USC on a Thursday night in Salt Lake City. With three home games in four weeks over the second half of the season before closing out against the Buffs and barring a big slip, there’s a chance to run the Pac-12 table with a win over The Trojans.
Best offensive player: Senior RB White. White was Exhibit A why the Utes continue to troll the junior-college ranks for future Pac-12 players. He exceeded everyone’s expectations, staff included, rushing for a single-season school record 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns on 316 carries. He was exciting and unusually durable for a 5-foot-8, 186-pounder. White had an uncanny ability to get better as games progressed, wearing down defenses with his relentless leg drive and pursuit of more yards.
Best defensive player: Senior NT Lotulelei. The 6-4, 325-pounder is a boulder in the middle of the Utah defensive-line, and one of the nation’s premier run-stuffing tackles. Named the Pac-12’s most dominant defensive lineman of 2011, he’s on the fast track to the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft as soon as he’s done playing for the Utes. The powerful anchor of the defense had 44 tackles, nine stops for loss and 1.5 sacks as a junior, but he is most effective when occupying blockers so that his teammates have a clearer path to making plays.
Key player to a successful season: Wynn. The Utes are a different team when Wynn is on the field. A better team. He’s not just the best passer in Salt Lake City, but he’s also a terrific leader and the kind of clutch player the program needs to have on the field more. His recent shoulder problems have been well-documented, abbreviating last season after only four games. If Utah can have its field general available for an entire season for the first time, the offense is capable of narrowing the divide on a defense that’s going to rank among the Pac-12’s best.
The season will be a success if: Utah wins at least eight games for a seventh consecutive year. The Utes ought to be 2-0 by the time BYU visits for the annual Holy War on Sept. 15. By remaining comfortably above the .500 mark for a second straight as a member of the Pac-12, the program will be sending a direct message that it belongs in a major conference that annually competes for a spot in the Rose Bowl. Utah houses the talent — both on the field and on the sidelines — to build on its first season in a new league.
Key game: Oct. 4 vs. USC. Yeah, the Holy War with BYU is a statewide phenomenon, but the visit from Troy presents an opportunity for a truly religious experience at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Trojans are the heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 South Division, and will arrive in Salt Lake City with a talent-laden roster led by Heisman favorite Matt Barkley. If the Utes can pull the upset in front of a sea of red, it could turn the Pac-12 title chase upside down. Oh, the game is also a nationally-televised Thursday night affair, which will add a few extra volts of electricity to the home crowd.