2014 Pac-12 Preview: Utah Utes

In the first six games of last season, the Utah Utes showed they could play with anyone in the conference, starting 4-2, losing by single scores to Oregon State and UCLA, and stunning Stanford. The offense put up a lot of points, and the defense played at a high level. Then it all fell apart. The defense continued to play hard, but an injury to quarterback Travis Wilson spoiled the second half of the year as the Utes limped to a 1-5 finish. Wilson has been cleared to play this season, and if he can stay healthy, the Utes should be able to compete with most teams. But do they have enough on board to return to a bowl game for the first time since they joined the PAC 12 in 2011?

Offense

Having Wilson back is a huge bonus, he’s a great leader who keeps the Utes in every game. Last season against UCLA, he threw six interceptions, but the team lost just 34-27. Of course, being an “old school baller” type, he is prone to mistakes when he forces big plays, something he could surely cut down on, but not at the expense of his style. Last season he completed 56.1% of his passes for 1827 yards and 16 TDs, with 16 interceptions, and ran for 386 yards and five scores on 81 carries. Wilson’s numbers took a dive after he was first injured, and a completely healthy year could see a big improvement. Should he go down again, Utah can take some comfort in having Oklahoma-transfer Kendal Thompson waiting in the wings.

Bubba Poole will lead the running attack this season after starting nine games in 2013. He led the team with 607 yards and two scores on 147 carries, and caught 29 passes for 229 yards last year. Poole had some fine games last season, but lost carries to since-graduated Kelvin York. Devontae Booker was a former 2013 JUCO signing who sat out last year due to academics, but should have a big impact this year. Also seeing carries will be Troy McCormick, a redshirt freshman who doesn’t stand out in any department, but does everything well. This is a solid backfield.

The receiving corps lost three of its top four from last season, including excellent tight end Jake Murphy, but it may be in better shape this season, if a little greener. One sure thing is Dres Anderson, a big play target who stretches the field and opens things up for his teammates. Somewhat overlooked in a conference full of all-star receivers, he should improve upon last year’s 53 receptions for 1002 yards and seven TDs. Joining him this season will be Kenneth Scott, a JUCO walk-on whose height and excellent hands make him an intriguing target. Scott has potential but his career has been marred by injuries, so health is certainly going to be a factor in performance. Senior Westlee Tonga missed most of last season to injury, and a redshirt granted him an extra year. He’s a career reserve, but has the talent to be a good one.

Apart from health concerns, the biggest issue on the offense is at the line of scrimmage. The left side should be the strongest with tackle Jeremiah Poutasi returning, he’s a multi-year starter at a position where experience and comfort can make or break you. Junior Salt moves from the right to the left this year, and is one of the unit’s best. Siaosi Aiono moves to center after playing right tackle last season. Sophomore Isaac Asiata will play guard after a few starts at tackle last season, but he could move back to tackle in a pinch if new starter, sophomore JJ Dielman, gets hurt.

Defense

The Utes’ defense was good last season, but could take a step backward this year with some key losses and injuries. The defensive line is hit particularly hard, losing 3/4 of last season’s unit. The biggest loss will be end/linebacker Trevor Reilly, who led the team in tackles with 100, 16½ in the backfield, and nine sacks. His playmaking ability was only amplified by his leadership, and both will surely be missed. But it’s not just the perimeter that’s undergoing a makeover, it’s the interior too as both of last year’s tackles are gone too. Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu combined for 95 tackles, with 12½ tackles for loss and six sacks, but are both out of the picture leaving holes for fresh faces to fill. The other end, Nate Orchard, is the sole returnee. He had 8½ tackles for loss, with three sacks, so he, or someone else will need to replace Reilly’s pass rush. Hunter Dimick made four starts last season, had a couple of sacks and was a valuable reserve. He will see plenty of action at defensive end, although Utah State-transfer Jason Fanaika is eligible to play this year, and will split snaps with him. In the middle will be Sese Ianu and Viliseni Fauonuku, both of whom saw action as reserves last year but will lead the rotation in 2014.

At linebacker, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham started seven and 10 games respectively last season, and will start again this season. However, they’ve been limited in camp, due to the coaching staff fearing they fall foul of the injury bug that has hit many of their teammates. Whittingham was second on the team with 81 tackles, while Norris made 64. Sophomore Uaea Masina played mostly special teams last season, but will start on the strong side in the coming season. Jacoby Hale is a good pass rusher, notching 6½ sacks last season, but he’s currently on hold while recovering from a knee injury suffered in camp. He should give the defense a shot in the arm when he returns.

Davion Orphey returns at cornerback last season after breaking up five passes, and he’ll be joined by Eric Rowe, who moves over from free safety where he started the last three years. He’s one of the fastest players on the team, and broke up seven passes last season. JUCO Tevin Carter replaces Rowe at free, but he’s looked great in fall camp. Brian Blechen missed all of last season with injury, but he returns at strong safety. He plays out of control at times but he’s a playmaker for certain. Depth is perilously thin due to a serious injury epidemic.

Special Teams

The strength of the team. Andy Phillips had an outstanding freshman season, nailing 7 of 20 field goals, with a 51 long. Tom Hackett was equally good in his sophomore season, grossing 43.4 yards per punt, dropping 27 inside the 20, with just 6 touchbacks. He hit 19 punts in excess of 50 yards, and forced 19 fair catches. Hackett’s punting allowed the return team to hold opponents to 6.7 yards per return. The kick coverage was less reliable though, allowing a couple of TD returns. The kick return unit was mediocre, while Geoffrey Norwood averaged 8.6 yards on punt returns. Both units could use a little flash.

Predictions

Utes fans and administration won’t accept 5-7 seasons for ever, so can Kyle Whittingham lead Utah back to a bowl game? The depth isn’t there for a sustained conference run, but on the right day, they can play with anyone, except maybe Oregon. On the flip side, Idaho State is probably the only sure win on the schedule. They should beat Fresno State in Salt Lake City, just like they should win in Colorado, but there are no guarantees. Put the Utes down for five wins this season, including a win over someone they’re not supposed to (Michigan?), but don’t be surprised if they pull off seven either.

 *Section Photo credit to Steven Bisig, USA Today Sports; Featured Photo (above) credit to Laura Seitz, Deseret News