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The big 2014 Utah football guide: Improved Utes face a nasty schedule

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Utah improved rather dramatically on paper in 2013, but close losses and a key injury prevented most people from noticing. Can the Utes take another step forward this fall? And will it matter with 10 bowl teams on the schedule?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Invisible improvement

In terms of F/+ ratings, Utah had regressed every year since 2008. The Utes ranked 11th in the country that year, at plus-24.3 percent (above average). That became plus-12.6 in 2009, then plus-11.6 in 2010. It began to fall more rapidly, to plus-1.2 percent in 2011, then minus-3.8 in 2012.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham still had a job because of the heights he had achieved from 2007-10, when the Utes won 42 games, at least nine each year. But it had become more and more difficult to be too optimistic about the direction of the program, especially after the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

In so many ways, 2013 was a rebirth. For the first time since 2010, the Utah offense actually gave the defense some help, especially over the first half of the season (before quarterback Travis Wilson went down with injury). The defense played at a top-30 level, just as it had in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011. Special teams was still solid. The Utes turned in the right direction overall ... and still went 5-7, just as they had in 2011.

Wilson's injury created a drastic downturn in Utah's offensive production; plus, the Pac-12 was just absurdly good in 2013. The Utes lost a thrilling nailbiter against Oregon State early in the season (Wilson's best and worst game), nearly knocked off UCLA in Salt Lake City, and fell by just a single point to eventual Pac-12 South champion Arizona State. Those three losses, some horrific turnovers luck (minus-5.3 points per game, easily the worst in the country), and the offensive dregs of the second half of the season, prevented casual fans from noticing too much growth, and Utah enters Year 4 in the Pac-12 having gone just 18-19 since the move.

Still, the growth of 2013 was obvious on paper, and with a lot returning (including a healthy-for-now Wilson), it's not hard to see Utah taking another solid step forward in 2014.

That's the good news. The bad news: the Pac-12 probably isn't getting any worse anytime soon. The hill seems to get steeper for the Utes each year, but at least they do have some traction this time around.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 7-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 31
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
29-Aug Utah State 32 30-26 W 43.4 - 34.5 W
7-Sep Weber State N/A 70-7 W 42.6 - 19.6 W
14-Sep Oregon State 42 48-51 L 38.2 - 27.5 W
21-Sep at BYU 30 20-13 W 33.6 - 16.4 W
3-Oct UCLA 15 27-34 L 26.3 - 21.5 W 12.9
12-Oct Stanford 3 27-21 W 36.9 - 28.3 W 12.9
19-Oct at Arizona 25 24-35 L 21.7 - 24.2 L 7.7
26-Oct at USC 11 3-19 L 13.0 - 14.4 L 5.3
9-Nov Arizona State 13 19-20 L 13.4 - 16.5 L 1.3
16-Nov at Oregon 5 21-44 L 23.9 - 25.1 L 0.1
23-Nov at Washington State 53 37-49 L 27.4 - 38.1 L -3.8
30-Nov Colorado 95 24-17 W 20.9 - 20.3 W -3.2
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +5.1% 42 +7.3% 30 +1.5% 39
Points Per Game 29.2 65 28.0 73
Adj. Points Per Game 28.4 67 23.9 28

2. The proverbial brick wall

Utah finished a healthy 31st in the F/+ rankings last year, but the Utes never really played like the No. 31 team in the country.

For five games, they were a legitimate top-20 squad, losing two frustrating games because of turnovers -- Travis Wilson was either unlucky with the turnovers or throws such a catchable ball that even defenders can't drop them -- and late-game drama. They tied Oregon State with 21 seconds left but lost in OT; then, down seven against UCLA, they drove to the Bruin 23 with 26 seconds left but failed on fourth down. They were minus-seven in turnovers in those two games and still almost went 2-0. That's both encouraging and mortifying. More encouraging: the Utes beat Stanford the week after the UCLA game.

But then Wilson hit a drastic slump (14-for-44 passing with six picks against Arizona, USC, and ASU), then was deemed was lost for the season when, while he was being evaluated for concussion issues, it was determined that he had a pre-existing injury to an intracranial artery. He was held out of the rest of the season, and while he was cleared to play again this summer, Utah's season pretty much ended when Wilson's A-game said goodbye.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Utah 36.8, Opponent 24.6 (plus-12.2)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 6 games): Opponent 23.1, Utah 20.1 (minus-3.0)

Without Wilson, neither the run nor the pass worked. New starter Adam Schulz was able to make some big plays here and there (13.4 yards per completion), but his completion rate was over 52 percent just once in five games (it was 58 percent against Colorado), and after averaging at least 5.7 yards per play in five of the first six games of the season (including three times against good Utah State, BYU, and Stanford defenses), the Utes did so just once in the final six. The defense actually improved a bit down the stretch, and it didn't matter.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.26 16 IsoPPP+ 115.9 8
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 36.9% 113 Succ. Rt. + 97.9 69
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 29.9 67 Def. FP+ 102.4 30
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.4 47 Redzone S&P+ 97.3 74
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.4 ACTUAL 25 +3.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 76 51 70 40
RUSHING 72 58 62 44
PASSING 62 40 74 45
Standard Downs 30 63 6
Passing Downs 74 72 38
Q1 Rk 46 1st Down Rk 17
Q2 Rk 29 2nd Down Rk 73
Q3 Rk 23 3rd Down Rk 67
Q4 Rk 98

3. All of the former head coaches

Last offseason, Kyle Whittingham added former Arizona State (and everywhere else) head coach Dennis Erickson to his staff to plump up the experience and potential of the offense, and it worked out pretty well overall. This offseason, he moved Erickson to running backs coach and added former Wyoming head coach (and former Missouri offensive coordinator) Dave Christensen. That bumps the total head coaching experience of the offensive assistants from 29 years to 34. Good luck finding a total larger than that.

Christensen's addition is interesting. He helped Gary Pinkel install the spread at Missouri, and he ran his own pass-first version at Wyoming. Erickson certainly isn't averse to spreading defenses out, but I'm curious what the two of them will come up with for a Utes offense that does feature a big, solid dual-threat in Travis Wilson and all-or-nothing running back Bubba Poole but must replace three of last year's top four targets. Erickson went for the jugular last season with the pass (top three targets: 17.2 yards per catch, 53 percent catch rate) while Christensen was more efficiency-first (top six Wyoming targets: 11.5 per catch, 66 percent).

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Travis Wilson 6'7, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 133 237 1827 16 16 56.1% 17 6.7% 6.8
Conner Manning 6'1, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Adam Schulz 6'1, 210 Jr. NR 75 154 1008 6 5 48.7% 7 4.3% 5.9
Brandon Cox 6'2, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Kendal Thompson
(Oklahoma)
6'1, 199 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 4 13 64 1 1 30.8% 0 0.0% 4.9
Donovan Isom 6'4, 240 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

4. La Trav and big plays

IsoPPP+ is an opponent-adjusted look at the magnitude of a team's big plays (or the big plays it allows); Utah ranked eighth in IsoPPP+ last season. When the Utes broke a big gain, it was a huge one. But over the second half of the season, the big ones were minimal. Bubba Poole averaged 5.2 yards per carry over the first six games and 2.6 over the last six. Dres Anderson averaged 21.1 yards per catch with five touchdowns in the first six and 16.4 with two in the last six.

Travis Wilson and tennis player Gael Monfils don't have a lot in common. They play different sports, they hail from different countries, and while they're both tall (Monfils is 6'4, Wilson 6'7), Wilson is bigger and beefier. But neither of them tend to do the mundane very well. La Monf is known for putting together some of the most spectacular shots you've ever seen ... and attempting to make far too many shots the most spectacular you've ever seen. I assume it's obvious where I'm going with this.

One of every 7.5 passes that Travis Wilson threw last year was either a touchdown or an interception. He took a few too many sacks and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. He threw three interceptions against Oregon State and six against UCLA, and he still almost led the Utes to wins in both games (and I do mean "led" -- he made almost as many great plays as awful ones). About Monfils, I've written that watching him is like watching your little brother -- you are absolutely thrilled when he wins, and you find yourself saying "Oh no, Gael. No, no. Get it together, Gael," rather frequently. Pretty sure I was saying the same thing during last year's Oregon State game.

Assuming Wilson is healthy for all of 2014, his ability to dial back when necessary could be the key to Utah's season. (And if he's not healthy, then the battle between Adam Schulz, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, and a bunch of freshmen could be interesting.) It is something Monfils has never fully learned, and getting rid of bad habits can get rid of some good ones as well, but Christensen's influence could be key here. He has been in charge of both exciting dual threats (Brett Smith at Wyoming, Brad Smith at Missouri) and robotic spread distributors (Missouri's Chase Daniel). How he and Erickson choose to use Wilson, and how much Wilson can avoid trying to play the hero, might make the difference of a win or two.

Above all else, though? Wilson might be the most fun quarterback in the country to watch, especially if you don't have a stake in the outcome. I was legitimately sad when he went out last year; hopefully it doesn't happen again.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Bubba Poole RB 6'1, 197 Jr. NR 149 607 2 4.1 6.3 26.8%
Kelvin York RB 118 463 6 3.9 3.4 32.2%
Travis Wilson QB 6'7, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 64 474 5 7.4 7.2 48.4%
Lucky Radley RB 59 289 2 4.9 5.7 33.9%
Adam Schulz QB 6'1, 210 Jr. NR 18 132 1 7.3 7.1 44.4%
Karl Williams RB 15 51 1 3.4 4.5 26.7%
Marcus Williams RB 10 40 1 4.0 1.7 50.0%
Dres Anderson WR 6'2, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 8 30 1 3.8 8.5 12.5%
Dre'Vian Young RB 5'9, 174 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Troy McCormick RB 5'9, 172 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Dres Anderson WR 6'2, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 105 53 1002 50.5% 29.2% 43.0% 9.5 271 10.8 146.6
Sean Fitzgerald WR 61 32 471 52.5% 16.9% 48.3% 7.7 39 8.3 68.9
Kenneth Scott (2012) WR 6'3, 208 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 56 32 360 57.1% 16.9% 51.8% 6.4 N/A 6.5 45.4
Jake Murphy TE 46 25 417 54.3% 12.8% 51.1% 9.1 86 8.9 61.0
Anthony Denham WR 40 24 291 60.0% 11.1% 52.6% 7.3 -10 7.2 42.6
Bubba Poole RB 6'1, 197 Jr. NR 38 29 229 76.3% 10.6% 44.4% 6.0 -94 5.9 33.5
Geoffrey Norwood WR 5'8, 175 Jr. NR 22 13 173 59.1% 6.1% 75.0% 7.9 8 8.2 25.3
Karl Williams RB 14 9 28 64.3% 3.9% 64.3% 2.0 -81 2.1 4.1
Lucky Radley RB 13 11 80 84.6% 3.6% 53.8% 6.2 -37 6.1 11.7
Dominique Hatfield WR 5'10, 175 So. 3 stars (5.6) 7 4 84 57.1% 1.9% 0.0% 12.0 32 7.9 12.3
Kelvin York RB 6 4 14 66.7% 1.7% 50.0% 2.3 -34 2.3 2.0
Siale Fakailoatonga TE 6'3, 251 So. 3 stars (5.6) 4 2 18 50.0% 1.1% 100.0% 4.5 -10 2.5 2.6
Westlee Tonga TE 6'4, 252 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 4 2 28 50.0% 1.1% 25.0% 7.0 0 3.3 4.1
Andre Lewis WR 6'3, 208 Sr. 4 stars (5.8)
Brian Allen WR 6'3, 200 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Harrison Handley TE 6'4, 250 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Kaelin Clay WR 5'10, 188 Sr. 3 stars (5.5)









5. Dres needs a dance partner

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Like just about every other Utah offensive player, Dres Anderson had one hell of a first half to 2013 before trailing off a bit. Still, he's proven that with steady quarterback play, he can thrive. Even with last year's iffiness, he finished the season averaging a strong 9.5 yards per target.

Anderson will have a new supporting cast this year, however. Last year's No. 2-4 targets are gone, which means that the second leading 2013 receiver is Bubba Poole. The return of Kenneth Scott will help -- the intended No. 2 was lost for the season in the first game of the year. A former marquee recruit, Scott might have decent upside despite averaging just 6.4 yards per target in 2012. So could former four-star JUCO recruit Andre Lewis. But the underbelly of the receiving corps is awfully young; that's one more reason why Utah might want to lean on the run at times.

(Then again, after Poole, the running backs are super-young as well. But hey, at least the line's experienced.)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 100.3 2.63 2.88 33.3% 64.7% 21.8% 98.1 4.7% 6.8%
Rank 71 107 101 117 83 105 71 66 66
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jeremiah Poutasi LG 6'6, 320 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 22
Vyncent Jones C 21
Jeremiah Tofaeono LG 18
Junior Salt RG 6'2, 315 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 12
Siaosi Aiono C 6'2, 305 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 9
Isaac Asiata RT 6'4, 310 So. 3 stars (5.7) 3
Percy Taumoelau LG 2
Marc Pouvave RG 6'3, 302 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Andrew Albers LT 6'7, 310 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0
Derek Tuimauga RG 6'3, 316 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Kala Friel LG 6'3, 315 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Hiva Lutui RG 6'1, 294 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
J.J. Dielman RT 6'5, 295 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Lo Falemaka LT 6'4, 290 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Salesi Uhatafe RG 6'4, 315 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Jackson Barton OL 6'7, 300 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.24 101 IsoPPP+ 96.5 83
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.0% 23 Succ. Rt. + 115.5 15
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.5 82 Off. FP+ 101.5 44
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.8 23 Redzone S&P+ 110.5 24
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.1 ACTUAL 16.0 -9.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 61 25 15 32
RUSHING 20 16 21 18
PASSING 111 31 15 64
Standard Downs 24 11 91
Passing Downs 31 29 42
Q1 Rk 26 1st Down Rk 21
Q2 Rk 28 2nd Down Rk 26
Q3 Rk 26 3rd Down Rk 37
Q4 Rk 23

6. In Utah, stud defenders grow on trees

  • In 2007, Utah ranked 14th in Def. F/+ and BYU ranked 20th.
  • 2008: Utah eighth.
  • 2009: Utah 29th, BYU 30th.
  • 2010: Utah 32nd, BYU 38th.
  • 2011: Utah 16th, BYU 37th.
  • 2012: Utah State ninth, BYU 10th.
  • 2013: Utah State eighth, BYU 15th, Utah 30th.

The three schools from the state of Utah makes up about two percent of FBS. But they've crafted five top-30 defenses in the last two years and 14 in the last seven. Needless to say, the recruiting rankings haven't been top-30 caliber overall, but coaching, structure, and a solid base of talent can make up a lot of ground.

Utah hits California hard, but the base of talent in Utah itself -- both at the prep and JUCO levels (particularly Snow College, which currently has six players on Utah's roster, four on Utah State's, and two on BYU's) -- appears to be approaching the level of offensive linemen from Wisconsin when it comes to being underrated by recruiting services.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 114.7 2.80 2.61 34.7% 63.6% 21.0% 124.8 7.5% 7.1%
Rank 20 43 13 24 40 41 23 8 57
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Tenny Palepoi DT 12 38.5 5.5% 9.5 4.5 0 0 1 0
Nate Orchard DE 6'4, 255 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 35.5 5.0% 8.5 3.0 0 1 3 1
LT Tuipulotu DT 12 30.0 4.3% 3.0 1.5 0 4 1 1
Hunter Dimick DE 6'3, 270 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 22.0 3.1% 2.5 2.0 0 0 1 0
Viliseni Fauonuku DT 5'10, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 7 10.5 1.5% 2.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Thretton Palamo DE 12 9.0 1.3% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Sam Tevi DT 6'5, 295 So. 3 stars (5.6) 11 6.5 0.9% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Latu Heimuli DT 8 6.5 0.9% 2.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Sese Ianu DT 6'2, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 10 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Pita Taumoepenu DE 6'1, 230 So. NR 7 4.0 0.6% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Daniel Nielson DT 6'6, 335 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 1.5 0.2% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Jason Fanaika DT 6'3, 270 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Filipo Mokofisi DT 6'3, 280 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Alani Havili-Katoa DT 6'3, 295 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Pasoni Tasini DT 6'2, 260 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)







7. Those trees needs to sprout some more tackles

Utah's return to the Def. F/+ top 30 coincided with some strong improvement up front. The Utes ranked 20th in Adj. Line Yards (16th in overall Rushing S&P+) and 23rd in Adj. Sack Rate; they were one of only nine defenses to rank in the top 25 in both categories. The others: Arizona State, Clemson, Michigan State, Stanford, TCU, Tulane, Utah State, and Virginia Tech. That's solid company.

Despite the loss of its top two tackles from 2012 (including Star Lotulelei), Utah's interior line more than held its own. Tenny Palepoi did a heck of a Lotulelei impersonation, and little-used LT Tuipulotu and Latu Heimuli combined with freshman Sam Tevi and undersized play-maker Viliseni Fauonuku to form a strong rotation. Only two of those five are back in 2014, however. For the second straight year, there's pretty heavy turnover up front.

Perhaps Utah will be just fine -- perhaps Fauonuku, Tevi, and others will fill roles and spaces and help Utah again produce strong line stats. It's within reach with the return of ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick and a strong pass rusher in linebacker Jacoby Hale. But consistent turnover means you have to consistnetly produce new play-makers; that's easier said than done.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Trevor Reilly STUD 12 78.0 11.1% 16.5 9.0 1 2 1 0
Jason Whittingham MAC 6'2, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 10 57.5 8.2% 5.0 1.0 0 4 1 0
Jared Norris ROV 6'2, 237 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 10 49.0 7.0% 4.5 2.0 0 2 2 0
Jacoby Hale STUD 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 9 31.0 4.4% 10.0 6.5 0 3 0 0
V.J. Fehoko MAC 11 12.5 1.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Quade Chappuis ROV 12 6.5 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Uaea Masina ROV 6'0, 222 So. 3 stars (5.6) 10 5.0 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Travis Still LB 12 5.0 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
LT Filiaga STUD 9 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 1 1 0
Gionni Paul
(Miami 2012)
MAC 5'10, 227 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 9 50.5 6.6% 3.5 0.0 0 2 1 0
Clarence Smith STUD 6'2, 240 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)








Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Eric Rowe FS 6'1, 201 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 55.5 7.9% 1 0.5 0 7 0 0
Michael Walker SS 12 54.5 7.7% 4 1 1 5 0 0
Brian Blechen (2012) SS 6'2, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 9 48.5 7.7% 3.5 0 1 5 1 0
Keith McGill CB 12 32.5 4.6% 0.5 0 1 12 0 0
Davion Orphey CB 6'0, 185 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 11 30.0 4.3% 0 0 0 5 0 0
Mike Honeycutt NB 12 23.5 3.3% 3 1 0 2 1 1
Justin Thomas NB 5'8, 178 So. 4 stars (5.8) 12 22.0 3.1% 3 0 0 2 0 0
Reginald Porter CB 5'11, 181 So. 3 stars (5.5) 11 7.5 1.1% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Hipolito Corporan CB 10 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Joseph Smith DB 2 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tyron Morris-Edwards FS 9 4.5 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chandler Johnson DB 6'0, 180 Sr. NR 6 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Charles Henderson FS 5'8, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 9 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Wykie Freeman NB 5'11, 174 Sr. 3 stars (5.5)
Joseph Bryant SS 6'3, 208 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Andre Godfrey DB 5'10, 186 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

8. Welcome (and welcome back)

There's turnover elsewhere on the defense, too. While three of the top four linebackers return, four of the next five do not, which means that it might take only a couple of injuries to dig deep into the well of freshmen and walk-ons. Meanwhile, three of last year's top five defensive backs (and five of the top 10) are gone.

Linebackers Jacoby Hale, Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris combined for 19.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed and should maintain a high level of play-making despite the loss of Trevor Reilly. Plus, Eric Rowe is one of the West's better ball hawks in the secondary. But the key to depth and consistency might be some players who weren't around last year, namely senior safety Brian Blechen and junior linebacker Gionni Paul. Blechen played linebacker for Utah in 2012 but missed 2013 with knee injuries; he dropped some weight and looks to become a play-maker at strong safety. He was an honorable mention all-conference player in both 2011 and 2012. Paul, meanwhile, was a steadying force for a Miami defense that needed just that in 2012.

With these two in the mix, Utah should produce an experienced, hard-hitting back seven. With proper run help from the defensive line, the Utes should once again finish in the Def. F/+ top 30.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tom Hackett 5'11, 187 Jr. 76 43.4 6 19 27 60.5%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Andy Phillips 5'10, 207 So. 58 60.2 11 0 19.0%
Jamie Sutcliffe 9 60.8 4 0 44.4%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Andy Phillips 5'10, 207 So. 41-41 8-9 88.9% 9-11 81.8%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Dres Anderson KR 6'2, 190 Sr. 11 21.1 0
Delshawn McClellon KR 5'9, 169 So. 9 21.7 0
Geoffrey Norwood PR 5'8, 175 Jr. 27 8.6 0
Bubba Poole PR 6'1, 197 Jr. 5 16.4 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 39
Field Goal Efficiency 15
Punt Return Efficiency 23
Kick Return Efficiency 113
Punt Efficiency 11
Kickoff Efficiency 105
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 95

9. All or nothing on special teams

In the six special teams categories listed above, Utah ranked 11th, 15th, and 23rd in three of them and 95th, 105th, and 113th in the other three. That just about everybody returns for this unit is a good thing, especially as it pertains to punter (and major field position weapon) Tom Hackett, place-kicker Andy Phillips, and punt returners Geoffrey Norwood and Bubba Poole. But kick returns could use a boost, and Phillips wasn't much of a kickoffs guy.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
28-Aug Idaho State NR
6-Sep Fresno State 48
20-Sep at Michigan 32
27-Sep Washington State 68
4-Oct at UCLA 20
16-Oct at Oregon State 43
25-Oct USC 9
1-Nov at Arizona State 21
8-Nov Oregon 3
15-Nov at Stanford 6
22-Nov Arizona 36
29-Nov at Colorado 99
Five-Year F/+ Rk 7.1% (43)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 52
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -9 / 3.6
TO Luck/Game -5.3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)

10. What a schedule

This is what Utah signed up for.

The Utes are one of just two true mid-majors to find a ticket to the major-conference dance, and they joined the Pac-12 just in time for the conference to surge. In 2014, they will play at Michigan, at UCLA, at Arizona State, and at Stanford while hosting USC and Oregon. From September 6 to November 22, they'll play 10 consecutive teams that went bowling last year while attempting to end a two-year bowlless streak themselves. That's a lot to ask.

The Utes could be ready, though. They really were a potential top-25 team before Wilson's struggles began last year, and if he's healthy and Christensen can have a bit of a steadying influence on him, the offense will be just fine. And the defense is usually just fine.

This is a top-30 (or so) team on paper, one that should be able to start 3-1, finish 2-0, and find at least one win in between. Utah isn't going to threaten for the Pac-12 South title or anything, but whereas last year's bounce back was mostly invisible, there are enough experienced play-makers to take another, more noticeable step forward in 2014. The veneer could crack with a couple of well-placed injuries, but ... well, that goes for a lot of teams. Utah was salty in 2013 and should be saltier in 2014.