Utes gunning for Pac-12 South despite QB battle
A year later, Utah's goal remains the same - winning a Pac-12 South title it let slip away in last year's regular-season finale with a loss to lowly Colorado.
The big difference this time is the Utes will have to get past a Southern California team no longer ineligible for the postseason.
''It's a formidable challenge and a lofty goal, with USC being a top 5 team and maybe the top team in the country,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Trojans. ''We've got our work cut out for us. ... But we're a better team top to bottom this year.''
Utah returns 16 starters from a team that finished 8-5 in its inaugural Pac-12 Conference season, including a 30-27 overtime victory over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
But gone is offensive coordinator Norm Chow, replaced by 2009 Sugar Bowl-winning quarterback Brian Johnson and his modified spread attack.
So what if Whittingham still hadn't officially announced his starting quarterback just two weeks before the Aug. 30 season opener against Northern Colorado?
Six-foot-2 junior Jordan Wynn is finally healthy after three shoulder operations, and is being pushed by mobile 6-foot-6 freshman Travis Wilson, redshirt freshman Adam Schulz and senior Jon Hayes, who started the last nine games after Wynn suffered yet another season-ending injury.
''I definitely feel like Jordan is our starter,'' wide receiver Luke Matthews said after Tuesday's scrimmage, in which Whittingham assessed Wynn's 6-of-9 effort the best of the bunch even though Schulz shredded the third-string D and has made the most progress.
Whittingham acknowledged Wynn probably ranks fourth in arm strength of the four.
''But to say you've got to have a cannon arm to play quarterback, I think that's a myth,'' Whittingham said.
Wynn was Poinsettia Bowl MVP as a true freshman in 2009, and already is tied for sixth in school history in career touchdown passes (31) and ranks ninth in career passing yards (4,390).
Regardless of who ends up starting, Whittingham hopes to have Wilson take 10 to 12 snaps a game in wildcat formations.
''His running ability is that much better than even we anticipated,'' Whittingham said of the San Clemente (Calif.) High School product. ''Plus, he's 30 pounds heavier than he was in high school, which has made him more durable.''
No one has proved more durable than diminutive running back John White, who led the conference and ranked third in the nation with 316 carries last season. He broke a 29-year-old school record by rushing for 1,519 yards in a season.
With Johnson's play-calling emphasizing downfield throws more and help from backs such as 223-pound junior Kelvin York, (130.5 yards a game at Fullerton College in 2010), White will still be Utah's workhorse - just perhaps not overworked.
Offensively, the Utes are stacked at wide receiver (DeVonte Christopher, Luke Matthews, Dres Anderson, Kenneth Scott and Anthony Denham), at tight end (David Rolf, Jake Murphy, Westlee Tonga, and Kendrick Moeai) and at H-Back (Dallin Rogers).
The biggest issue (other than a shaky kicking game) is finding tackles to protect the quarterback, with Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen graduated and Miles Mason sidelined during camp with an ankle injury. Freshman Jeremiah Poutasi and junior Percy Taumoelau are the front-runners for now.
However it shakes out, Whittingham expects a more wide-open offense than the one that averaged just 25 points a game under Chow (with only UCLA, Oregon State and Colorado faring worse). He hopes it will resemble the offenses of 2004 and 2008 - both undefeated squads that busted the BCS with January bowl victories, respectively, over Pitt in the Fiesta and Alabama in the Sugar.
Defensively, the Utes return seven players from a unit that led the conference in scoring D, interceptions and red-zone defense.
The secondary is set with corners Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee, and safeties Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen, though a team rules violation will force playmaker Blechen to sit out the first three non-conference games.
The Utes also return their soft-spoken Star - defensive end Star Lotulelei, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior who Whittingham calls the best player to return for his senior season since Luther Elliss bypassed the NFL draft in 1994 before going on to a 10-year pro career that included two Pro Bowls.
Lotulelei was voted the Pac-12's top defensive lineman in 2011, with nine tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble.
''Star is the cornerstone of our entire defense,'' Whittingham said. ''Everything is built around him. He's a game-changer.''
He's joined on the defensive line by tackle Dave Kruger and ends Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua.
Whittingham also plans to use junior linebacker Trevor Reilly at end in a wild-card role since he's so good at disrupting plays.
His four forced fumbles led the Utes and ranked third in the Pac-12, and he also had nine tackles for loss, five sacks, two pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
Despite his numbers, the late-November loss to Colorado still eats at Reilly, who rather than growing another big beard like last season sports a straggly goatee - one he doesn't plan to cut unless the Utes hit a losing streak.
Though his wife is due with their second daughter the day Utah plays at Arizona State (Sept. 22), Reilly no doubt has the USC game on Oct. 4 circled, too.
''I grew up in Southern California, watched the SC games when I was a kid,'' said Reilly, a 6-5, 238-pound former walk-on who attended Valley Center High School about 100 miles from Los Angeles. ''So for me, I'm going to take it personal. They didn't recruit me and I want to stick it to them.''