Year One of the PAC 12 experiment (okay, its not really an experiment) is in the books Ute fans. How do you feel it went? From my perspective, which wasn’t nearly as close as I should have liked it to be, it was a lot of downs with some very promising ups. Losing a chance to play in the PAC 12 Championship game in year one by losing to Colorado and then coming back to beat Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl perfectly encapsulates 2011 for the Utes and shows what they can offer and where they have to improve in 2012 if they want to be relevant in the conference.
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham enters his 8th season for the Utes with a 65-25 record and has an incredible 6-1 record in Bowl Games in that stretch, including the impressive Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama in 2008.
Offensive coordinator and QB coach Brian Johnson has been the target of much chagrin and angst for Ute fans this off-season. There is no doubting his pedigree (Sugar Bowl winner and his tutelage under some fine offensive minds both as a player and a coach) but it’s a very hard pill to swallow when you hire a limited experienced coach at 25 years of age to be a new coordinator in a tough conference like the PAC 12. Ute fans are nervous, and rightfully so. They’ll be keeping their eyes on what happens with this offense.
At quarterback, fall camp was littered with rumors and suggestions of what this team should do. Ultimately, the pecking order came to light and returning starter, junior Jordan Wynn is the man. And this is the right decision. But how long will he stay on his feet and healthy is the main concern everyone in Ute Nation is harboring. He has a propensity to get hurt and it really hurt the team last season when he went down. Johnson has settled on his own version of the spread offense. It should be more West Coast style with an emphasis on the run, which in my opinion is a good thing because I don’t think Wynn is suited to run a true spread offense. His back ups, should he get hurt (should I say, when he gets hurt?) are senior John Hays who performed about as well as you could have expected him to a season ago and freshman Travis Wilson. It will be interesting to see who gets late game snaps in a blowout or who the teams turns to should Wynn get hurt. Right now, Hays will be the guy under center. I don’t think that will last very long.
Provided the quarterback can stay upright, he will have a healthy bevy of receivers to throw to. They should be as good as any unit in the conference. Seniors DeVonte Christopher, Reggie Dunn, and Luke Matthews for 74 catches and 1137 yards in 2011. Sophomores Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott pitched in 31 more catches for 496 yards. If Wynn can stay healthy, this receiving corp will help him have a very productive season.
Speaking of the run game, it can’t feel half bad to have a guy like John White IV returning for a senior campaign after what he accomplished in 2011. I don’t know that he can carry the team as he did a year ago, but JUCO transfer Kelvin York looks to step up and shoulder a little of the load that White had to carry in 2011. I feel this will be a huge welcome to White so he doesn’t have to shoulder the load as he did last year. When the year ends, I expect White will figure prominently in the talk for one of the first few backs to go in the NFL draft in April.
The offensive line is where Utah may really struggle. The interior of the line will be fine and should be able to open some gaps for White and York to run through, but the tackle positions will be a struggle to watch out of the gate especially when lining up against great edge rushing teams. And given Wynn’s propensity for getting injured, this will be paramount to get them up to speed as soon as possible.
If there is one thing you can count on, it is that the Utes will bring an amazing and talented defense to the table each week. Some impressive stats to note: the Utes led the PAC 12 last season in interceptions, red zone defense and scoring defense. And in spite of the tougher slate of opponents after moving from the Mountain West Conference, they managed to hold their opponents to a combined 263 points for the year, the sixth straight year they have accomplished that feat.
Starting with the man projected to be a top 5 pick in next spring’s NFL draft, Star Lotulelei, the defense is solid along the line. Star cannot be controlled by one single lineman and in many cases requires not only a second, but a third lineman. Additional talent along the line includes senior Dave Kruger (yeah, that name is like Reynolds at BYU) and JUCO transfer Tenny Palepoi as well as a bevy of talented two-deeps who will keep this line fresh all game long and make it impossibly difficult for opposing offense lines to deal with. Bottom line: this defensive line will spend most of the season dictating the battle in the trenches and not being dictated to – and there isn’t much higher praise that you can give this group. And don’t forget the other Kruger on this team, Joe, moving to right end after playing much of his time at left end last season.
Behind the mountains of men on the line will be the most unproven group of players. Trevor Reilly is returning on the strong side and has the potential for some big play opportunity but the Utes will trying out two new linebackers. Names such as VJ Fehoko (a name BYU fans may curse for his fumble return in Provo last season) and Jacoby Hale figure to be the starters in the middle and at the rover position. But don’t be surprised if defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake finds a gem or two amongst his defense and comes out firing solidly on all cylinders.
The last line of defense is always a huge strength for the Utes and 2012 will be more of the same. Ryan Lacey and Mo Lee will return at the two corner positions after accounting for 80 tackles and 5 interceptions last season. But the highlight of this secondary is the safety position led by junior Brian Blechen. He’s returning to safety after playing last season as a linebacker, a move that left many Utes fans scratching their heads. He does have a three game suspension to serve at the top of the season for failing multiple drug tests and it does take the team through the Rivalry Game before he returns in time for the season that matters, but it could be a factor in what should be a hotly contested battle for the Beehive Boot and the lead in the Deseret Duel on September 15. At free safety, the Utes have Eric Rowe who is only a freshman all-American.
Games to watch
BYU on September 15 will be circled on everyone’s calendar. But it won’t be the most important game for Ute fans. Arizona State on September 22 will be a revenge game for many fans, but the big one to watch for is two weeks later at home against USC who will likely be #1 in the country at the time and Utah will be smarting after letting that one get away last season. Honestly, there aren’t many games to be considered awful on this schedule after they beat up Northern Colorado and most of them should be fun to watch, if not for any reason but to watch this defense fly around the field, John White IV run down the field, and to see if Jordan Wynn can make it for all 13 games this season.
After really dissecting this schedule I firmly believe that the Utes win against Northern Colorado and Utah State. I think Gary Anderson’s boys will give them some fits, but this defense is just too good. The BYU game in my opinion is truly a toss up. If Riley Nelson stays within the game plan, BYU has a chance to win. If he gets erratic and tries to make plays that aren’t there, Utah gets another solid double digit win. I’m leaning towards the former with BYU eking out yet another win. Utah wins big at ASU and comes home for an absolute dog fight with USC but loses another close one. From there, Utah will be on a mission and will win easily against UCLA, OSU, and WSU with a tough game against Cal in the middle. I think Utah gets that win and after WSU will be sitting on a 7-2 record heading to Seattle. Washington is a toss up but again I think Utah’s defense comes through with a win and Utah coasts to two more victories to end the season at 10-2, pending their bowl game assignment where they’ll likely win since that is all Kyle Whittingham does is win bowl games.