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1. A poorly-timed slide
When Utah was announced as the 12th member of the Pac-12, we heard a lot about the impact such a move might have on recruiting for a program that was already thriving on the field. From late-September 2007 to early-December 2010, Kyle Whittingham's Utes went 39-4; they were in the middle of a nine-year bowl streak, had finished the 2008 season second in the AP polls after going undefeated and whipping Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl ('Bama is 4-0 in bowls/BCS title games since then), had finished 10-3 in 2009, and began 2010 8-0, reaching sixth in the country.
They had done all of this from a mid-major conference, and now they were going to start recruiting at a major level? Utah's ceiling seemed awfully high.
Sure enough, Utah's recruiting rankings have taken a turn for the better. From 2005-10, Utah's average recruiting ranking, via Rivals.com, was 53.5; only once did the Utes rank higher than 44th. In the last three years, the average has improved to 36.3; the 2012 class ranked 28th.
Let's just say that the 2012 class needs to live up to its billing, and then some. The Pac-12 bump better be real because the Utes need some help. In terms of F/+ rankings, Utah ranked 30th, 11th, 29th, and 28th from 2007-10, a consistent top-30 team. But a late-season funk in 2010 carried over into 2011, their first in the Pac-12. Utah fell to 55th that year, and although the Utes still managed eight wins and another bowl bid, the bowl streak ended in 2012, when they sank to 66th and 5-7. Injuries did Utah no major favor in 2012, but the Utes just didn't have enough options, and now the depth chart has been severely thinned out by graduation and attrition.
If Utah is going to rally in the next year or two, it is going to be around members of these recent recruiting classes. Hopefully they're good ones.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 66|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||Northern Colorado||41-0||W||20.2 - 10.3||W|
|7-Sep||at Utah State||20-27||L||23.4 - 21.4||W|
|15-Sep||BYU||24-21||W||22.0 - 18.9||W|
|22-Sep||at Arizona State||7-37||L||20.4 - 31.8||L|
|4-Oct||USC||28-38||L||21.2 - 35.8||L|
|13-Oct||at UCLA||14-21||L||23.3 - 22.2||W|
|20-Oct||at Oregon State||7-21||L||18.1 - 19.1||L|
|27-Oct||California||49-27||W||26.0 - 37.8||L|
|3-Nov||Washington State||49-6||W||35.9 - 18.7||W|
|10-Nov||at Washington||15-34||L||14.7 - 34.8||L|
|17-Nov||Arizona||24-34||L||24.9 - 28.6||L|
|23-Nov||at Colorado||42-35||W||21.2 - 33.2||L|
|Points Per Game||26.7||76||25.1||50|
|Adj. Points Per Game||22.6||111||26.1||46|
2. A few hints, but not really
Of course, that's the numbers perspective. The anecdotal perspective basically tells us the same thing. Utah made the jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 last season, struggled at quarterback, fell stagnant on offense and STILL almost made it to the Pac-12 title game. A 17-14 upset loss to Colorado, fueled in part by three missed field goals, prevented that from happening, but an 8-5 debut season and a ton of returning experience have made folks in Salt Lake City pretty optimistic. Like, really, really optimistic. Head coach Kyle Whittingham? Excited. The folks at Block U? Thinking big. The local media? Saying "loaded" a lot. [...]
[W]ith another strong defense, another Top 25 special teams unit, and potentially the most favorable schedule in the Pac-12, you don't really have to trust the offense to expect quite a few wins for the Utes this fall. If the offense does improve -- if [John] White truly establishes himself as an elite back, if [quarterback Jordan] Wynn proves his allegedly high ceiling, etc. -- then a season with double-digit wins is not only a possibility; it is of high probability.
I was high on the defense, and the Utes plummeted from 16th in Def. F/+ to 57th. I figured the offense would improve, and it did, but only from 111th to 89th. Wynn couldn't overcome constant shoulder injuries and retired from football two weeks into the season. (He's now a graduate assistant under former Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow at Hawaii.) Jon Hays succeeded him, completed 18 of 27 passes for 196 yards and two scores in a win over BYU, then struggled and was replaced by a true freshman, Travis Wilson. Running back John White was limited with injury and mostly ineffective when healthy, at least until late in the season. The offensive line struggled. No receiver stepped up consistently.
In other words, the offense was not nearly good enough to account for a defense that faded rather dramatically
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Utah 21.9, Opponent 16.9 (plus-5.0)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): Opponent 27.6, Utah 24.2 (minus-3.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Opponent 32.2, Utah 20.3 (minus-11.9)
A lack of continuity kills. Only two of Utah's top four defensive linemen, two of the top five linebackers, and one of 12 defensive backs played in all 12 games for the Utes last season. The effect was obvious. To say the least, it is difficult to field an effective team when its supposed strength (the D) is basically playing its second string.
|Q1 Rk||107||1st Down Rk||107|
|Q2 Rk||71||2nd Down Rk||79|
|Q3 Rk||78||3rd Down Rk||94|
3. An interesting combination
Kyle Whittingham made some waves last year by bringing on Brian Johnson, his 2008 starting quarterback, as offensive coordinator when Norm Chow left to take the Hawaii job. As I've written before, it has been a while since Chow had fielded a particularly good offense anywhere, and his 2011 Utes offense set a low bar. Johnson's 2012 offense cleared the bar, but only by so much. The Utes were still awful at running the football, and while the passing game improved, it was still below average.
Whittingham made an equally interesting hire this past offseason. In early February, he brought on former Miami and Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson as co-coordinator. It's been a long time since the 66-year-old Erickson was anything but a head coach (1981 at San Jose State, to be exact), but in theory he could bring to the table exactly what Utah lacked last season. The Utes played at a slow pace and were in no way aggressive with the football, racking up few big plays and playing seemingly passive football on standard downs. That Travis Wilson was able to pull off a little bit of passing-downs magic as a true freshman is exciting, but he faced far too many passing downs; all Utah quarterbacks did, for that matter.
If Erickson can introduce some urgency, aggressiveness, and identity into the Utah offense, that could only be considered a good thing. It's possible that the run game won't be any better, but Erickson has had plenty of strong passing games over the years. His presence should be good for Travis Wilson.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Travis Wilson||6'6, 240||So.||*** (5.7)||128||204||1,311||62.7%||7||6||14||6.4%||5.6|
|Adam Schulz||6'1, 205||So.||NR||2||2||52||100.0%||0||0||0||0.0%||26.0|
|Brandon Cox||6'2, 200||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Kelvin York||RB||5'11, 220||Sr.||**** (5.8)||60||273||4.6||2.8||3||-4.5|
|Travis Wilson||QB||6'6, 240||So.||*** (5.7)||50||133||2.7||2.7||4||-10.9|
|Jarrell Oliver||RB||5'8, 213||So.||*** (5.7)||23||52||2.3||0.9||0||-5.5|
|Lucky Radley||RB||5'8, 187||Jr.||*** (5.6)||15||46||3.1||1.5||1||-1.3|
|Dres Anderson||WR||6'1, 187||Jr.||*** (5.6)||14||83||5.9||2.9||0||+2.3|
|James Poole||RB||6'0, 196||So.||NR||9||47||5.2||1.9||0||+0.2|
|Karl Williams||RB||6'0, 243||Sr.||** (5.2)||7||37||5.3||4.2||0||+0.5|
|Devontae Booker||RB||5'11, 205||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
4. Any hope for the run game?
In 2011, Utah ranked 108th in Rushing S&P+ and 107th in Adj. Line Yards, just putrid numbers for a team that was basing its offensive identity on the ground game. In 2012, the Utes passed a little bit more but still couldn't run, ranking 102nd and 93rd in the two categories, respectively. Technically there was improvement there, but this was still an awful running game; and in 2013, John White and three multi-year starting linemen are gone.
Now, losing starters isn't as big a deal when the starters aren't very good. White teased us with occasionally dominant performances in 2011-12 -- 22 carries for 174 yards versus BYU, 36 for 171 versus Pitt, 35 for 205 versus Oregon State, 33 for 167 versus UCLA in 2011; 22 for 142 versus Washington and 20 for 168 versus Colorado in 2012 -- and at the very least tackle Sam Brenner was good enough to get all-conference attention. But there was simply no consistency here. In 2012, White struggled with an ankle issue, missed the BYU game, and rushed 58 times for just 198 yards in the four games after he returned. But even a hobbled White was seemingly better than the supporting cast behind him. Kelvin York, Jarrell Oliver, and Lucky Radley showed almost no explosiveness whatsoever last season; now they're the experienced, old hands.
Despite the losses up front, Utah's line should still be experienced. Of the four returnees with starting experience, three are seniors; the other is sophomore Jeremiah Poutasi, an enormous former four-star recruit who will fill Brenner's role at left tackle this year. And while the line struggled last season, it can blame continuity for some of the issues: in the first eight games, Utah had to start five different line combinations. Stay healthy, and you're already ahead of the game.
If the running game can at least improve a little more, the passing game should match the improvement. Wilson at least held his own last year and came to Salt Lake City with a pretty good pedigree. Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott have shown flashes in their first couple of seasons (though neither excelled amid last year's QB derby), senior Anthony Denham might be ready for a bigger role, tight end Jake Murphy is a keeper, and four-star JUCO transfer Andre Lewis will certainly have plenty of opportunity for playing time.
This isn't a great receiving corps by any means, but Erickson should be able to coax some decent production out of it.
|Dres Anderson||WR||6'1, 187||Jr.||*** (5.6)||59||36||365||61.0%||6.2||17.8%||50.8%||6.0||46.1|
|Kenneth Scott||WR||6'3, 211||Jr.||**** (5.8)||56||32||360||57.1%||6.4||16.9%||51.8%||6.5||45.4|
|Jake Murphy||TE||6'4, 252||Jr.||**** (5.8)||42||33||349||78.6%||8.3||12.7%||54.8%||8.4||44.0|
|Anthony Denham||WR||6'4, 222||Sr.||*** (5.7)||15||11||135||73.3%||9.0||4.5%||60.0%||9.0||17.0|
|Karl Williams||RB||6'0, 243||Sr.||** (5.2)||9||9||83||100.0%||9.2||2.7%||66.7%||9.2||10.5|
|Westlee Tonga||TE||6'4, 252||Sr.||** (5.3)||7||4||39||57.1%||5.6||2.1%||14.3%||8.5||4.9|
|Sean Fitzgerald||WR||6'3, 200||Sr.||** (5.2)||4||4||61||100.0%||15.3||1.2%||50.0%||12.9||7.7|
|Brian Allen||WR||6'3, 208||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Andre Lewis||WR||6'3, 210||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Greg Reese||TE||6'5, 250||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Delshawn McClellon||WR||5'9, 166||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Sam Brenner||LT||26 career starts; 2012 2nd All-Pac-12|
|Tevita Stevens||C||35 career starts|
|Miles Mason||RG||21 career starts|
|Jeremiah Poutasi||LT||6'5, 345||So.||**** (5.8)||10 career starts|
|Vyncent Jones||C||6'3, 305||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9 career starts|
|Jeremiah Tofaeono||LG||6'2, 320||Sr.||*** (5.5)||6 career starts|
|Percy Taumoelau||LG||6'4, 310||Sr.||*** (5.5)||2 career starts|
|Siaosi Aiono||RT||6'2, 305||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Carlos Lozano||LT||6'6, 380||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Junior Salt||RG||6'2, 325||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Derek Tuimauga||RT||6'4, 320||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Hiva Lutui||C||6'2, 300||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Andrew Albers||OL||6'7, 310||Jr.||** (5.3)|
|Q1 Rk||50||1st Down Rk||69|
|Q2 Rk||40||2nd Down Rk||28|
|Q3 Rk||93||3rd Down Rk||71|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Trevor Reilly||DE||6'5, 245||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||51.5||8.2%||6.5||4.5||1||4||3||1|
|Nate Orchard||DE||6'3, 245||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||40.0||6.3%||9.5||3||0||4||2||3|
|Jason Whittingham||DE||6'2, 234||So.||** (5.2)||9||26.0||4.1%||2.5||1||0||1||2||0|
|Tenny Palepoi||DT||6'2, 300||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||16.5||2.6%||3||2||0||0||0||0|
|Viliseni Fauonuku||DT||5'11, 285||So.||*** (5.5)||12||10.0||1.6%||4.5||1||0||0||1||0|
|Thretton Palamo||DE||6'2, 255||Sr.||NR||9||3.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|L.T. Tuipulotu||DT||6'1, 305||Sr.||*** (5.7)||3||1.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Latu Heimuli||DT||6'3, 305||Sr.||**** (5.8)|
|Hunter Dimick||DE||6'3, 270||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Stevie Tu'ikolovatu||DT||6'1, 320||RSFr.||NR|
|Sese Ianu||DT||6'2, 305||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Moana Ofahengaue||DE||6'3, 235||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
5. A need for speed
When your defensive line is the primary source of your identity, and when you lose basically three of your top four defensive linemen, it's time for a reboot, whether you like it or not. And in the absence of players like tackle Star Lotulelei, Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake have decided to get smaller and faster. Last year's starting line averaged 6'5, 281; this year's projected starting line: 6'2, 266. Linebackers Trevor Reilly and Jason Whittingham have been converted to ends -- that move should suit Reilly, a pretty good pass rusher, just fine. Plus, safety Brian Blechen has moved to linebacker.
Previous Utah defenses were predicated on big lines eating up blockers and tremendous safeties preventing big plays; now, perhaps to counter the speed of Pac-12 offenses, Utah is going with something different. Change doesn't automatically guarantee success, but with so many departures, especially up front, the Utes had to try something.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brian Blechen||STUD||6'2, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)||9||48.5||7.7%||3.5||0||1||5||1||0|
|L.T. Filiaga||ROV||6'0, 250||So.||*** (5.6)||11||22.5||3.6%||2||0||0||0||1||0|
|V.J. Fehoko||MLB||5'11, 225||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||22.0||3.5%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|Jacoby Hale||ROV||6'0, 230||Jr.||*** (5.6)||7||22.0||3.5%||3||0||0||2||0||0|
|Reshawn Hooker||STUD||6'0, 220||So.||*** (5.7)||3||8.5||1.3%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jared Norris||ROV||6'1, 230||So.||*** (5.7)||7||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Travis Still||LB||6'1, 225||So.||*** (5.7)||12||1.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Uaea Masina||MLB||6'2, 215||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
6. A new need for blitzing
Utah had one of the best standard downs sack rates in the country last year; that means the Utes were able to generate heat without blitzing. Lotulelei and Joe Kruger were both quite strong in this regard, but all returning non-linemen combined for just one sack last season.
Even though Reilly could be a strong, adept pass-rush specialist, Utah will likely have to blitz quite a bit more in 2013; that's a problem considering Reilly was last year's best blitzer. And here's where the impact of recent recruiting could be felt the most, for better or worse. Underclassmen like L.T. Filiaga, Reshawn Hooker, freshman linebacker Uaea Masina, and perhaps even safeties like Eric Rowe and JUCO transfer Tevin Carter will play a major role in creating a new, interesting pass rush. If they're good at it, then the pieces could fall into place nicely. But if the increased speed cannot create increased havoc, then Utah's weaknesses are still weak, and its strengths (in this case, run defense) probably get weaker.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Eric Rowe||FS||6'1, 205||Jr.||*** (5.7)||10||51.5||8.2%||0.5||0||1||5||0||1|
|Quade Chappuis||FS||5'11, 200||Sr.||NR||5||19.5||3.1%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Tyron Morris-Edwards||SS||6'1, 200||Jr.||NR||9||12.5||2.0%||1||0||0||2||0||0|
|Keith McGill (2011)||CB||6'3, 205||Sr.||**** (5.8)||5||9.0||1.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Michael Walker||NB||5'9, 182||Sr.||*** (5.5)||10||6.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Wykie Freeman||DB||5'11, 179||Jr.||*** (5.5)||4||4.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Mike Honeycutt||DB||5'10, 181||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||3.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Joseph Bryant||DB||6'3, 208||So.||*** (5.6)||4||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Joseph Smith||NB||5'9, 189||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Charles Henderson||S||5'9, 185||So.||** (5.4)|
|Reginald Porter||CB||5'11, 190||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Justin Thomas||CB||5'9, 173||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Davion Orphey||CB||6'0, 187||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Tevin Carter||FS||6'1, 213||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
7. A transfusion
It's probably not a good thing that all four cornerbacks on Utah's summer two-deep (PDF) weren't on the two-deep at the end of last season. Gone are Reggie Topps, Moe Lee, and Ryan Lacy (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss, 19 passes defensed); in their place are names like Keith McGill (a former star recruit who has played only five games in two years because of a shoulder injury), redshirt freshmen Justin Thomas and Reginald Porter, and junior college transfer Davion Orphey.
Now, Thomas was also a star recruit, and Orphey is a reasonably big corner who was good enough to also play running back as a freshman at Santa Ana Community College. And while last year's corners were decent play-makers, they also allowed quite a few plays. Some new blood might not hurt, though depth could be a serious issue.
|Tom Hackett||6'0, 190||So.||25||38.9||1||10||15||100.0%|
|Charles Henderson||KR||5'9, 185||So.||7||14.6||0|
|Charles Henderson||PR||5'9, 185||So.||26||5.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||27|
|Field Goal Pct||102|
|Kick Returns Avg||6|
|Punt Returns Avg||104|
8. Any hope of replacing Reggie Dunn?
In three seasons, Reggie Dunn caught only 31 passes and scored just one receiving touchdown. On an offense desperate for weapons in 2012, he averaged just 5.3 yards per target on about one target per game. He was a non-factor in the offense for the most part; but the Pittsburgh Steelers are still giving him a strong look this summer because of his oh-my-god speed and kick return abilities. In just 48 career kick returns, Dunn scored five touchdowns and averaged 30.9 yards per return; that's ridiculous.
Because of Dunn, kick returns were a strength for Utah's special teams unit in 2012. But without Dunn and other strong field position weapons like punter Sean Sellwood and kickoffs guy Nick Marsh, Utah's strong special teams unit could struggle in 2013.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|23-Nov||at Washington State||97|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||32|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||33|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+4 / +7.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (6, 7)|
9. Holy War checklist
Three years ago, Utah and BYU played each other as conference rivals for the final time. Since 2011, the two programs have gone off in their own direction; Utah upgraded from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, while BYU set about on a "Notre Dame of the west" course, choosing to go independent. Let's go to the scorecard to see who's faring better.
- Average F/+ Ranking: BYU 31.5 (was 40.0 in the two years prior), Utah 60.5 (was 28.5)
- Record: BYU 18-8, Utah 13-12
- Record vs. BCS conference opponents (and Boise State): Utah 11-11, BYU 4-7
- Two-Year Recruiting Rank: Utah 33, BYU 70
- Holy War wins: Utah 2, BYU 0
The record is mixed thus far. BYU's performance has been more consistently strong (and unlike Utah, BYU hasn't had the luxury of going 3-1 versus Washington State and Colorado), but the Utes have taken both head-to-head matchups and have taken better advantage of their improved recruiting opportunities. BYU is more well-positioned for success in 2013, but will that remain the story moving forward?
10. Win your home games
In 2013, Utah hosts Utah State, Weber State, Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State and Colorado. The Utes are projected higher than just two of those seven (Weber State, Colorado), but they obviously won't be significant underdogs against teams like Utah State, Oregon State, Arizona State, or possibly UCLA. Figure out a way to go 4-3 at home, and a return to bowl eligibility is a distinct possibility; at that point, the Utes would just have to figure out how to go 2-1 at BYU, Arizona and Washington State, basically.
A year ago, I was talking myself into a potential 10-2 season for Utah; now I have to spin to get to 6-6 or 7-5. The last year did not go as planned for Whittingham and his Utes, but better health and new identities for both the offense and defense will give them a shot at a rebound.
With so many Pac-12 teams improving, it will be hard for Utah to catch up after losing so much ground last year; but it won't be impossible if some of the key, highly-touted youngsters and newcomers -- Travis Wilson, Andre Lewis, Jeremiah Poutasi, L.T. Filiaga, Reshawn Hooker, Justin Thomas, Davion Orphey -- come through.