The last time we saw Utah, they were still trying to establish themselves in the brave new world of the Pac-12. A few years and a half-dozen offensive coordinators later, it looks like this could finally be the year they realize that goal. Last season's 9-4 (5-4) campaign had its share of signature wins (#8 UCLA, #20 USC, #23 Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl), but it lacked the week-to-week consistency needed to finish in the top half of the division.
This year's team doesn't have the fear factor of a USC or an Oregon, but it doesn't have a lot of obvious holes either. RB Devontae Booker could be the best in the conference, and the defense returns seven starters from a last year's scary-good crew. Football guru Phil Steele projects the Utes' two deep as the eighth most experienced in the country (see Cal at #22), but will that be enough for the Utes to break through?
The name to know here is Devontae Booker. He's a big, fast back who racked up a cool 1500 yards last year on his way to the All-Conference first team, and he wants more. To be specific:
I'm planning on rushing for 2,000 yards and winning the Heisman.
Fair enough. The Utes have a slate of other running backs that should contribute, including JuCo transfer Joseph Williams, but Booker will be expected to carry the offense this season.
Joining Booker in the backfield is senior QB Travis Wilson, who threw for 156 yards and one interception against the Bears in his freshman season. (Despite his unspectacular performance, the Utes put up 49 points on the strength of two (two!) 100-yard kickoff returns by Reggie Dunn.) Wilson is still looking for some consistency in his game, having temporarily lost the starting job to Kendal Thompson and then regaining it when Thompson went down with an ACL injury against Oregon. Wilson capped the season with a strong performance in the Las Vegas Bowl, which should be enough to slot him into the starting job for this fall.
Wilson will be looking for help from his receiving corps, one of the few units of weakness on this Utah team. Kenneth Scott and Kaelin Clay led the receivers last year, but with Clay gone to the NFL, Scott will have to step up and lead a very inexperienced unit.
Then comes the question of scheme, which will likely be all new this year as Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding become Utah's fifth and sixth offensive coordinators in five years. The two were promoted from WR/QB and OL responsibilities, respectively, as last year's OC Dave Christensen left the program for a job at Texas A&M. Also having a hand in the discussions on offense will be assistant head coach Dennis Erickson. The former ASU head coach joined the Utah staff in 2013, and was promoted to the assistant job to complement head coach Kyle Wittingham's defensive expertise.
As if the coaching tree wasn't complicated enough, there have been some changes on the defensive coaching staff as well. Last year's DC, Kalani Sitake, bolted for Oregon State and former Utah assistant Gary Andersen. He'll be replaced by John Pease, who returns to Utah after a short retirement from coaching.
Pease would be wise not to change too much from last year's defense, which battled injuries but still ranked second in the conference in total defense. The Utes specialize in an aggressive defensive style that led the conference with 55 sacks, but which subsequently struggled with pass protection. Graduated DE Nate Orchard will be missed, but most of the defensive line and linebackers return and project to be among the stronger units in the conference. LBs Jared Norris and Jason Wittingham are the big names on defense, as both have been named to the watch list for the Butkus Award. The linebackers could bring in some serious hardware, as Norris is also on watch lists for the Badnarik award and the Nagurski and Lott Trophies.
The secondary, however, faces something of a rebuilding project after two big personnel losses. Dominique Hatfield was projected to start at cornerback this season after S/CB Eric Rowe was taken in the second round of the NFL draft, but he was removed from the team in July for undisclosed off-field conduct. He was named as a suspect in a robbery investigation, but as of July 17th the charges against Hatfield were dropped, meaning his potential future with the program is unclear.
The Special Teams:
Utah's special teams see yet another coaching change, as Kyle Wittingham gives up coordinating duties to Morgan Scalley. Don't expect to see too much change here, though, because it's pretty clear the Utes have this unit locked down. Punter Tom Hackett won last year's Ray Guy Award, and Kicker Andy Phillips was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist. The Utes will be looking for new returners after Kaelin Clay's graduation, but this unit can safely be expected to cause some problems for opponents.
The Bottom Line:
Let's all take a moment to be thankful Cal isn't playing in the South division this year. Utah is right on the edge of contention behind the LA schools and the Arizonas, but they sure look like a complete team on paper. They'll have a tough schedule to contend with, starting with a visit from Jim Harbaugh's new-look Michigan team, but they could have enough experience to make a good run.
At the same time, I see the Utes as a pretty good matchup for Cal. Their weakness in the secondary is just calling out for a visit from the Bear Raid offense, and their heavy dependence on the run is the lesser of two evils against Cal's defense. Of course, this game would look a lot more winnable in the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium, but we might still catch them early enough in the season to take advantage of the plethora of coaching changes. I'm not predicting anything, just putting it out there to the universe.
Go Bears, beat the Utes!