Post Spring Football Q&A About Utah

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

We march on in the previews of our Pac-12 brethren, today taking a look at Utah. Thanks to the fine folks over at Block U for taking the time to answer all of our questions!

1. What were the core questions you had hoped would be answered in spring football? What conclusions were reached?

Quarterback and the defensive secondary were the two most glaring questions marks heading into spring. All observers of the Crimson wanted those questions answered, but what came out of it, especially with recent transfers and injuries, were uncertainty and more questions. At quarterback, junior Travis Wilson demonstrated more rust than progress, redshirt freshman Connor Manning seemed to close the gap, and last season's backup, junior Adam Schulz, dropped off the pace. If it were just a three-man race, that would be one thing, but with highly regarded 6-5 freshman Donovan Isom and Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, a junior, arriving in the summer, there are still plenty of QB questions to be answered in fall camp.

As for the defensive backs, one of the supposed answers from the spring, sophomore Hipolito Corporan, announced his transfer to Sam Houston State. However, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake also welcomes in highly regarded senior transfer Tevin Carter, who is expected to immediately shore up the secondary. The final two-deep at defensive back may depend on the situation at linebacker for Utah, as several injuries to key 'backers may force Sitake to move productive, hard-hitting safety Brian Blechen closer to the line of scrimmage.

2. Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?

Utah's offense will be under new management this season, as former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen takes the helm. Style-wise, Christensen runs a spread, which is what Utah has been running (in various forms) since Urban Meyer first set foot on campus in 2003. However, Christensen's spread will look a bit different from what Utah has seen in the past, which should be good news to Utah fans. Health may be the biggest factor toward offensive success, as the Utes experienced a number of devastating injuries on the offensive side of the ball last season, including starting quarterback Travis Wilson, starting wide receiver Kenneth Scott, and starting tight end Jake Murphy. If Scott can stay on the field for a full season (something the junior has failed to do in his Utah career), defenses will be unable to key on fellow wideout Dres Anderson. That should open the middle of the field for running backs Devontae Booker and Bubba Poole, as well as Christensen's array of screens and tight end Westlee Tonga.

3. What players emerged on offense? On defense?

On offense, quarterback Manning made a serious argument for consideration in the fall. At worst, Manning should be in the mix for the backup role, assuming Thompson is talented enough to push Wilson for the starting job. Right now, Utah has more quarterback talent on its roster than it has since joining the conference, which, in a quarterback loaded Pac-12, is important.

On defense, sophomore running back Marcus Sanders-Williams was a surprise. Yes, I said running back. Due to a rash of injuries across the linebacking corp, Sanders-Williams was transferred to the other side of the ball and opened some eyes at linebacker. With starting 'backers Jacoby Hale and Miami transfer Gionni Paul out for undetermined lengths of time, Sitake needs to find some answers in the middle of the field. Sanders-Williams is certainly talented and athletic enough. Now the question becomes can he learn Utah's elaborate 4-3 defense in time for Idaho State in the fall?

4. What are your biggest worries coming out of spring into fall camp?

Questions still remain at quarterback and defensive back; however, there's plenty of talent and depth to sort through. Linebacker remains the biggest area of concern. Injuries to starters Hale, Paul, and Jason Whittingham leave some big holes, not only in terms of talent but also in terms of simply numbers. Sanders-Williams, as noted, was a pleasant surprise, but sophomore linebacker Uaea Masina appears to be stepping up to fill the gaps. Masina played in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams, but may be one of the most important players on the defense, holding the line (literally) until Hale and Paul are able to return.

5. Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the Pac?

Utah's season will be determined in the first third. Three of the Utes first four games are in the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah could be 2-0 heading into a big trip to the Big House against a motivated Michigan team. That game could be a portent of things to come. If Utah gets out of Michigan with a win, they likely beat Washington State at home the following week, a team that ran away from them in Pullman last season 49-37. Utah's offense will be tested at Michigan. Utah's defense will be tested against Wazzu. Both games will give a good barometer reading for the rest of the season, as Utah hits the Pac-12 road in week five at UCLA. The Washington State game is the more important of the early games, as the Utes have yet to start strong in the conference and generate some momentum into the middle of the season, a brutal stretch in 2014 which includes the Bruins, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State, Oregon, and Stanford. If Utah doesn't start at least 3-1, they're destined for another 5-7 season, their third straight losing season. If the Utes do start 3-1 (or 4-0), they have a good chance to steal a couple in the conference and return to a bowl game, which is the only expectation this season. Middle of the Pac would be a step up for Utah this season, a much needed step for the program.

6. Any freshman you can't wait to get on campus?

There are several freshman Utah fans are excited to see. As mentioned earlier, highly touted quarterback Donovan Isom is one who could be in the mix during fall camp, and 6-2, 180-pound wide receiver Kenerick Young is also one to look out for. The speedy Young was named Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the Gainesville Sun (Fla). Texas wide receiver Raelon Singleton, a big target at 6-3, could also be a name to keep an eye on. Another Floridian, defensive back Andre Godfrey, is expected to add more speed and athletic ability to the Ute's secondary, while 6-1, 310-pound defensive tackle Lowell Lotuleilei, brother of Carolina Panther's DT Star Lotuleilei, will add depth along the line.

7. Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fill those shoes?

Defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi will be a big loss on defense, but Utah has had little problem filling big shoes along the line on defense. Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 6-1, 310-pound bruiser, will be among several to shore up the hole in the middle. But it may be the versatile defensive end/outside linebacker, Trevor Reilly, who is the hardest to replace. Reilly had a knack for finding the ball, as well as an ability at 6-foot-5 to disrupt passing lanes and get to the quarterback. Reilly will likely be replaced by several players, as defensive end Hunter Dimick (6-3, 270) is the likely candidate to cover Reilly's spot along the line, while Paul and Blechen may be the replacements at linebacker.

8. Any particular Pac-12 matchup/rivalry you're looking forward to in the fall?

Utah hasn't developed the kind of rivalries that have existed for years in the former Pac-10. Unlike the other schools in the conference, Utah doesn't have a cross-town or in-state rival who is also a member of the Pac-12. As such, the games that are most interesting on the conference schedule include the return of USC to Rice-Eccles Stadium after the Sarkisian hire, as well as Oregon's first trip to Salt Lake City since Utah busted the BCS in 2004. Both games are opportunities for Utah to record signature victories, especially the USC game, as Utah is 0-3 versus the Trojans since joining the Pac-12. And, really, who doesn't enjoy beating USC? However, Sarkisian had the Utes number while coaching Washington, so it's not as if Utah will be able to take advantage of a first-year Trojans coach. Utah has two close losses in the conference series with the Men of Troy, but the Utes need to take that "next step" and win one.

9. What are the specific injury concerns coming out of spring?

Linebacker, linebacker, linebacker. Senior starter Hale, one of Utah's best sideline-to-sideline pursuers suffered a devastating injury, and may be able to return in the latter third of the season to complete his final year. Paul could be back during fall camp, but that remains to be seen. Starter Jason Whittingham is also coming off an injury but is expected to be ready in the fall. Depth is the greatest question, as Utah has talked about moving up safety/linebacker Blechen and moved running back Sanders-Williams to fill the need.

10. Based on what you've seen, who is poised to take a major leap this fall?

The most likely candidate is linebacker Masina, as he may get the most time on the field and have the greatest impact with the injuries to fellow 'backers. However, Dimick has a chance to really place his stamp on the program from the defensive end position. At 6-foot-3, he's not as tall as Kyle Whittingham and Sitake like on the edge, but he has a way of getting to the ball. At 270 pounds, Dimick is a bull for tight ends or tackles, while also having some quickness at the point of attack. Dimick could have a big season, especially if defenses key on the opposite side for speed rusher Nate Orchard.

11. Did head coach Kyle Whittingham make any changes in the spring to help Utah get a winning record in the Pac-12?

There were several changes to the Utah staff, mostly on offense where Whittingham hired Christensen to captain the ship. Christensen brought along Jim Harding to shore up the offensive line, and former Purdue All America wide receiver Taylor Stubblefield was hired to teach the wideouts how to be more productive in the pass-happy Pac-12. Former offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson was moved to running backs coach, while former wide receivers coach Aaron Roderick was moved to coach the quarterbacks. Long-time special teams coordinator Jay Hill moved up I-15 to take the head coaching job at FCS-level Weber State University, leaving Whittingham himself to take over special teams duties. Offensive line was a huge questions mark last season, as was the offense as a whole. Christensen becomes the sixth play caller at Utah since Andy Ludwig led the 2008 squad to an undefeated season and a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, and the new OC's success or failure in 2014 may directly impact the longevity of Whittingham.

12. Whom do you want to punch in the face?

Utah fans would probably say Steve Sarkisian. Sark is a former quarterback for our long-time rival, BYU, and appears to have a bit of smarminess/arrogance to him, perfect for a USC head coach. This addition to the Trojan's legacy will only provide their visit to Rice-Eccles on October 25 with that much more drama. In truth, there doesn't seem to be that much difference between Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian. That should add to lots of conference discussions in the coming seasons.

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