Well, it is never too early to take a ponder at the 2011 football season. All of April we were looking at coverage of Cal's spring practices. Unfortunately for Cal, Cal is not the only team that has been practicing in the Spring. Other Pac-12 squads have laced up to get ready for the 2011 season. We're going to talk with as many of the other Pac-12 SBN sites as will speak with us. Today, we're talking with Block U, purveyor of all things Utah.
Utah fans were ecstatic at the creation of the Pac-12. This is their time to play on the big stage. They've certainly done far better than Cal these last few years, potentially even laying claim to a National Championship bid on a few occasions. However, the football bluebloods turned up their noses and clucked their tongues, saying "What should be done with these Utah Utes?" Well, the days of the plucky upstart is over.
Now, Utah is playing with the big boys each week, every week (except for when they play WSU). They even come out to AT+T Park this year. They play USC in no less but the second week of the year. Their home schedule in 2011 includes Oregon State, Washington, Arizona State, and UCLA. So, things are going to start off red hot for Utah. What do Utah fans think of all this? What did they learn in spring practice? What concerns them about 2011?
After the jump, we see what Block U had to say to our hard hitting questions. Many thanks to Block U for taking the time to answer these questions. GO BEARS!
1. What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?
1. Heading into spring camp, most fans were anxious to see how the offense would develop under new offensive coordinator Norm Chow and whether or not Tyler Shreve or Griff Robles could prove to be competent backups to the injured Jordan Wynn. Unfortunately, those questions weren't really answered in the positive. The offense struggled with depth issues due to injuries on the offensive line and neither Shreve or Robles looked all that impressive. The concern now is whether Utah has a legitimate backup if Wynn somehow sustains another injury during the season. We're hopeful, though, both will improve their play during unofficial practices and fall camp later this summer.
2. Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?
2. Utah has pretty much revamped the entire offense under Chow. In the past, at least since the 2003 season, the Utes were a spread option team. It was their identity during the Urban Meyer days and really the offense that put the program on the map. However, Utah hasn't been a true spread option team since Meyer left at the end of the 2004 season. While Kyle Whittingham kept much of the offense intact, it certainly became a hybrid of both the spread option and the traditional pro-style offense you generally see in college football. In fact, depending on who lined up under center, the offense shifted in one direction or the other. In 2005, Whittingham's first season at Utah, Brian Johnson was the quarterback and the offense the team employed was probably the purest form of the spread option since Meyer left the program.
In 2006, Johnson sat out with an injury and the starter then, Brett Ratliff, was not a spread option quarterback. That was the season the Utes really started experimenting with a hybrid offense and really, even with the return of Johnson in 2007, the offense never went back to being purely spread option.
But Chow has entirely gutted the spread option and will bring in the West Coast offense - which will heavily rely on downfield running and play to the strengths of Utah's quarterback, since Wynn is not an option quarterback. Most fans are excited for these changes because last year's offense was awful at the end of the season (they managed only 7, 3, 16 and 3 points in four of their final five games). The hope now is that Chow, with all his experience coaching college football (specifically in the Pac-10), can rebuild this offense and make it work more efficiently.
3. What players emerged on offense? On defense?
3. On offense, I'd have to say the most impressive players were the two running backs: Havey Langi and John White. While the offense struggled for much of spring camp, the bright spot has been at this spot and I know a lot of Ute fans are giddy with how well Langi looked, since he's only a freshman. With uncertainty at quarterback, Utah's ability to establish the run this season could be the difference between contending for the Pac-12 South and faltering badly in their first season in the conference.
Safety Mike Walker is a player on the defensive end that I was most impressed with this spring. One of Utah's biggest concerns entering spring was the safety position and I feel a bitter today than I did in March. But Walker wasn't the only player to step up on this unit. Terrell Reese is another safety that has made great strides and really filled the void that was created with no returning starters at this spot.
4. What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?
4. The quarterback spot has to be the biggest worry because, as I mentioned, the backups really haven't proven they're capable of stepping in and succeeding if Wynn were to go down at some point this season. The next concern, then, is Wynn's durability. He was injured on the first play of last year's Red-White game and missed the entirety of it and then was injured in Utah's win over Pittsburgh to start the 2010 season. He missed two games with that injury and then subsequently was injured again in Utah's 68-27 win at Iowa State two weeks later. He played through that injury and finished out the regular season, but the injury certainly was a nagging one. The Utes' offense took a nosedive in proceeding weeks and the coaches made the decision to sit him out of the Las Vegas Bowl (a humiliating 26-3 loss to Boise State).
So the biggest concern entering fall and the 2011 season is whether or not Wynn can play an entire season without a nagging injury. If he can, the offense is there for a pretty good year. But if he's injured again, without no separation between his two backups, the season can go south pretty fast.
It should be noted, though, that Brian Johnson faced a similar injury bug in his first two seasons at Utah. I mentioned he was injured in 2005, missed the entire 2006 season and then came in 2007 only to be injured in the first game against Oregon State. That injury kept him out for three weeks (including the week the Utes destroyed UCLA 44-6) and even appeared to be an issue at the end of the regular season, as he struggled against BYU in a 17-10 loss down in Provo. He bounced back nicely, though, and as a senior led Utah to a perfect 13-0 and a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
I'm not saying that's what is in store for Wynn and the Utes, but fans were equally concerned about Johnson's durability prior to the 2008 season and he made it through just fine.
5. Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?
5. If Wynn stays healthy, Utah will contend for the Pac-12 South. There is talent on this team and Wynn is a very good quarterback. The biggest concern, as I've said a few times, is Wynn's durability. But I'm not going to write off this season on a hypothetical. I think most Ute fans are going to enter this season expecting Wynn to play all 12 (hopefully 14 when you add conference championship & bowl) games.
If he does, and there is no hint of injury, the Pac-12 South could be decided on Oct. 8th, when Utah hosts the Arizona St. Sun Devils.
6. Jordan Wynn is back. How will he torch the Pac12?
6. By not getting injured. If he stays healthy, he'll do to most Pac-12 teams as he did to Cal in the '09 Poinsettia Bowl.