Its summer and there is not a whole lot of new information on Cal football so here comes my new Pac 12 Preview Series in which I break down the rest of the conference as we inch closer to Fall Camp.
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (15th Season)
OC: Andy Ludwig (1st Season) - Previously with Utah (‘05-’08)
DC: Morgan Scalley (4th Season) - (12th season overall on staff)
Regular Season: 9-3 (6-3) - Pac 12 South Champion
ESPN Football Power Index: 20
Offensive Efficiency Rank: 42
Defensive Efficiency Rank: 13
Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 28
Another Big Year in Sack Lake City
Utah was a popular pick to win the Pac 12 South in 2018 as the Utes finished a close second to USC in the Preseason Pac 12 Media Poll. Utah did not disappoint and earned their first trip to the Pac 12 Championship in an effort propelled by a top notch defense. Premiere defense and superb special teams have become the norm since Whittingham’s Utes joined the Pac 12 and 2018 was no exception. Utah was one of the country’s toughest teams on the defensive front led by DT’s Leki Fotu and John Penisini, DE Bradlee Anae, and a bevy of high quality depth. The Utes’ defensive front was recurrently immovable in the run game and pressured the passer at a high rate. They are massive in the middle and fiery off the edges. Just about everybody from their dominant DL is back in 2019 for an incredibly deep unit that should be one of the nation’s best. The most prominent question for this defense will be how they replace the star linebacking tandem of Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. Both were sensational for the Utes last season, but the Utes have at least one reliable replacement on deck with Francis Bernard; a former BYU transfer who had a strong finish to his 2018 campaign with the Utes. Joining him is a proven Penn State grad-transfer in Manny Bowen along with young talent, Devin Lloyd, to fill the other void at LB. While Utah is recognized for premiere talent and player development in the front-seven, exceptional play in the secondary has elevated their defense the past few seasons. This year, the secondary returns three members of its quintet earning Pac 12 Honers in 2018. They lose both starting safeties but return CBs Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon along with nickelback Javelin Guidry. Blackmon shifts to Safety enabling the starting unit to trot out five players all with starting experience. Guidry (Utah’s version of Cal’s Traveon Beck) was outstanding at NB last season and many believe Johnson has All-American potential. Blackmon’s shift to safety has reportedly been seamless and Utah’s defense appears to be as stout as ever in 2019.
More Weapons on the Offensive Side
The Utes have become a stalwart for defensive dominance and special teams savvy. Quarterback play and perimeter talent, however, have frequently limited the Utes’ prospects of becoming national contenders. 2017-2018 OC Troy Taylor’s departure for the head coaching job at Sacramento State marks the ninth OC change in the last eleven seasons for the Utes. Entering, however, is another familiar face to both Cal and Utah fans. Andy Ludwig returns to Salt Lake City where he thrived under the same position from ’05 to ’08 before taking the Cal OC job in 2009. Taylor’s short presence in Salt Lake City sparked a greater influx of talent at the skill positions. Before QB Tyler Huntley’s and RB Zach Moss’s season ending injuries in Week 10 at Arizona State, Utah’s offense was humming to a sweeter tune than any preceding stretch in Utah’s Pac 12 tenure. After a bumpy start to the season, Huntley, Moss, and a successful run-blocking OL started to control games. Talent upgrades at WR and strong TE play supplemented and Utah looked as strong as anyone in the conference. Utah maintained success after Huntley’s injury with backup QB Jason Shelley but struggled mightily in the postseason. Huntley and Moss return for what can be the best backfield duo in Salt Lake City since Utah joined the Pac 12 and there is some tested depth behind them. Huntley really started to look the part as a bonafide dual-threat before his injury and Zach Moss is one of the top RB’s in the country. The Utes have genuine perimeter weapons returning with Britain Covey and Jaylen Dixon combined with the spring emergence of young talents Bryan Thompson and Solomon Enis. The Tight Ends will be strong again, but questions arise on the OL where the Utes lose their top three starters from last season. Darrin Paulo will move to LT and Orlando Umana takes over at Center. Nick Ford may bookend at RT after starting seven in 2018, but greater questions remain at the Guard positions. Incoming JUCO tackle Bamidele Olaseni is an interesting piece to the puzzle and would be a huge lift to the unit if he looks ready in the fall. Ludwig is known for wanting to slow the game down with snaps under center and larger personnel packages. The OL likely will take a step down from 2018, but improved QB play along with better talent at the skill positions could bolster the offense in 2019. A lot of it will be up to Huntley and how he adjusts to Ludwig’s offense.
I have the Utes as the favorite to win their second consecutive Pac 12 South title. Whittingham has built a dependable conference contender in Salt Lake City and he could potentially have his best team in 2019. Moreover, the Utes draw a favorable schedule that includes five conference home games and omits both Stanford and Oregon.