March 7, 2011

Utah ready to take on Pac-12

Utah's impending move to the Pac-12 has been much anticipated ever since it was announced last summer, but it's not as if the Utes don't have experience against the group of teams they're joining.

Two years ago, for instance, Utah fell by a touchdown on the road against Pac-10 champion Oregon and beat California in the Poinsettia Bowl. In fact, since coach Kyle Whittingham took over in 2005, Utah is 4-3 against Pac-10 teams.

That suggests the Utes will be competitive in the Pac-12. But can they contend for championships?

Utah has posted at least 10 wins in each of the past three seasons. Oregon is the only Pac-10 team to accomplish that feat. Of course, skeptics, haters and West Coast football snobs might contend Utah was aided by playing in the Mountain West Conference, which they would dismiss as an inferior league.

Winning consistently does figure to be more difficult in the Pac-12, but the Utes are eager to begin spring drills and prepare to show they can sustain their success in the new league. New coordinator Norm Chow will be changing the offense from the spread to more of a pro-style scheme but won't have starting QB Jordan Wynn, who will miss spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Here's a look at the Utes as they prepare for spring football.

UTAH AT-A-GLANCE
Starting QB Jordan Wynn will miss spring drills.
THE BASICS
COACH: Kyle Whittingham
LAST SEASON: 10-3 overall, 7-1 in the Mountain West Conference. Lost 26-3 to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
SPRING DATES: March 8-April 16
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
OFFENSE (7): T Tony Bergstrom, WR DeVonte Christopher, T John Cullen, WR Luke Matthews, TE Kendrick Moeai, G Tevita Stevens, QB Jordan Wynn. DEFENSE (5): SS Brian Blechen, NT Dave Kruger, LB Matt Martinez, E Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker. SPECIAL TEAMS (1): P Sean Sellwood.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: Although there are significant losses at receiver, that remains a solid area for the Utes. DeVonte Christopher led the team in yards per catch (16.9) and touchdown receptions (six) last season. Luke Matthews averaged 16.1 yards on 18 catches and figures to have a bigger role in the offense, though he's going to get a look at running back (his high school position) this spring. Utes coaches also are optimistic about the potential of former junior college transfers Reggie Dunn and Dexter Ransom. Linebacker is a strong point with Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, the Utes' top two tacklers in '10, and Brian Blechen will move there from strong safety, where he started last season as a true freshman.

HELP IS NEEDED: There is concern at running back, where Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata completed their eligibility. Sausan Shakerin, the third running back last season, has left the team because of repeated concussions. No running back on the roster had more than 59 rushing yards in 2010. The secondary has to be restocked, too. All four starters must be replaced, including All-MWC CB Brandon Burton, who opted to enter the NFL draft. The offensive line returns three starters, but lost two All-MWC selections.

3 GUYS TO WATCH

QB Griff Robles: Jordan Wynn, last season's starter, is recovering from shoulder surgery and will miss spring drills. Robles will have the advantage of a spring learning and directing new coordinator Norm Chow's pro-style scheme. Robles is a good runner with an accurate arm, but has thrown just one college pass. With a good spring, he could threaten Wynn for the starting job in August. He'll be competing this spring with Tyler Shreve, a good athlete who had disciplinary problems in high school.

RB John White IV: White is a transfer who set numerous rushing records at L.A. Harbor College. The Utes have a dire need at that position. White showed big-play ability in junior college, but will he be just as explosive at the FCS level?

RB/CB Lucky Radley: Radley arrived last summer as an all-state running back from California. His future still could be at that position. But he's also expected to get a look at cornerback, a position where the Utes are in need.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

CB Conroy Black: Black, a senior, has great speed, but he still gave up far too many big plays last season. After transferring in from junior college, he blew too many assignments and struggled with technique. He needs to polish his game this spring to hold off competition from younger - and perhaps more-talented - players.

THE BUZZ

This season's spring drills are more anticipated than any before because of the Utes' impending move to the Pac-12. Rebuilding an offense unit that failed to score 20 points in four of the final five games is the top priority this spring. But the Utes must replace their leading rusher and receiver and their top two offensive linemen. Wynn's absence will be a problem unless Robles or Shreve show signs of flourishing in Chow's system. Defensively, progress must be made in the secondary. The Utes will see more high-caliber quarterbacks in the Pac-12 than they saw in the Mountain West.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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