July 24, 2011

Top 120 countdown
No. 26 Utah
Coach:: Kyle Whittingham (57-20 in seven seasons at Utah) | Staff
Last season: 10-3, 7-1 (2nd in Mountain West; lost to Boise State in Las Vegas Bowl) | 2011 schedule
Returning starters (minimum seven starts last season): Offense (7): T Tony Bergstrom, WR DeVonte Christopher, T John Cullen, SS Brian Blechen (moving to OLB), T Dave Kruger, LB Matt Martinez, E Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker. Special teams (1): P Sean Sellwood.

OFFENSE

an inside look
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Jordan Wynn a championship-caliber quarterback? Though he has had two solid seasons, there is a faction of Utah fans that isn't sold. Last season, he had a 62.2 completion percentage while passing for more than 2,300 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But he didn't play well in losses to TCU and Notre Dame or in a victory over BYU. He also missed three games because of injury, which raises durability questions.

THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: As with many junior quarterbacks, Wynn makes significant strides in his quarterback play, John White and/or Harvey Langi emerges as a capable running back, changes in the defensive line boost the pass rush and newcomers in the secondary prove capable of playing at a high level. In addition, the Utes stay relatively injury-free, win games they should and pull an upset or two, and as a result, they are a factor in the South Division race down the stretch. They win nine and qualify for a "good" bowl game.

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The running game continues to struggle and the defense continues to have problems with the pass rush and in coverage. The step-up in competition also exposes depth issues. That takes its toll down the stretch and Utah fails to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2002.

STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: At first glance, the secondary looks like a potential disaster. The Utes ranked 73rd in the nation in pass defense and gave up 20 touchdown passes last season, and there are no returning starters. Yet the pass rush may be a bigger issue. The secondary didn't get much help and opposing quarterbacks were able to wait for receivers to come open. The Utes had to use a variety of blitzes to apply pressure and that left them vulnerable to big plays. Last season, Utah posted 29 sacks, but only six came after October. Furthermore, the defensive line produced just a dozen. Utah must find a way to get pressure from its defensive line if it's going to make significant improvement in its pass defense.
OVERVIEW: The offense was capable of putting up big point totals last season, but it struggled when facing better defenses later in the year, when the Utes were held to 17 or fewer points in four of their last five games. Along with a move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, Norm Chow was brought in as coordinator to lead a switch from the spread to more of a pro-style system. The passing game needs more consistency and the running game needs a reliable feature back. But at least there is proven talent at quarterback and three returning starters along the line.

BACKFIELD: Junior QB Jordan Wynn is coming off shoulder surgery that forced him to miss spring drills. Still, Chow said he has been a quick study in learning the new scheme. He figures to be a better fit in Chow's West Coast scheme, where he won't be counted upon to run. The Utes do need someone to emerge as a running threat, though. The top three running backs from last season are gone. A committee approach may be used unless junior college transfer John White or true freshman Harvey Langi distinguish themselves early.

RECEIVERS: The Utes should be solid in the receiving corps and could be excellent if some newcomers live up to their promise. WR DeVonte Christopher averaged 16.9 yards on 39 receptions in 2010 and likely will get more chances this season. The same goes for junior Luke Matthews, who averaged 16.1 yards on 18 catches. But Matthews could end up at running back. Utes coaches are high on redshirt freshman Dres Anderson, and junior college transfer Anthony Denman is a big target who could provide immediate help. Dexter Ransom is another to keep an eye on; he could develop into a major target this fall. TE Kendrick Moeai had only 11 catches last season, but figures to be used more by Chow.

LINE: The Utes were excellent in pass protection a year ago and that's not likely to change with senior Ts Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen still around. Bergstrom was an All-Mountain West Conference selection and is an All-American candidate. He and Cullen could be the best tackle duo in the Pac-12. Junior Tevita Stevens shifts from guard to center, which may be his best position anyway. Utes must look to unproven players at guard, with junior Sam Brenner and sophomore Percy Taumoelau the leading candidates to start there.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW: Running yardage typically doesn't come easy against the Utes. The line is deep and the linebackers are a strong group. But Utah must make vast improvement against the pass and must do so with a rebuilt secondary. Coach Kyle Whittingham made his bones as a defensive coordinator, and he works closely with coordinator Kalani Sitake, who also is the linebacker coach.

LINE: Although Dave Kruger made 10 starts at nose tackle in 2010, he got a lot of action at end during the spring and looks like he'll make the shift to the edge. That will further bolster a position that already has good depth with returning starter Derrick Shelby, improving sophomore Joe Kruger (Dave's younger brother) and senior Tevita Finau. None had more than two sacks last season, though. If needed, Dave Kruger could go back inside, but the Utes feel 310-pound NT Star Lotulelei is a rising ... well ... star.

LINEBACKERS: Seniors Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, both former walk-ons, are back to build on strong 2010 seasons. They were the Utes' top tacklers a year ago and big reasons Utah ranked 11th in the nation in run defense. Walker has all-conference credentials. To further strengthen that area, sophomore Brian Blechen moves to the strongside after earning freshman All-America recognition at strong safety last season. Senior J.J. Williams, another former walk-on, has recovered from a foot injury that forced him to miss most of last season and will provide help for Walker in the middle.

SECONDARY: When All-MWC CB Brandon Burton opted for early entry into the NFL draft and Blechen was moved to linebacker, the Utes were left having to replace all four starters in the secondary. Senior CB Conroy Black has blazing speed and received significant playing time as a junior college transfer last season, but he also blew too many assignments. He has to play with more consistency. Sophomore Ryan Lacy, who originally was recruited as a receiver, is another speedster with limited playing experience. The safety positions are even more uncertain. Junior college All-America Keith McGill is a good bet to start at free safety, and as many as four players will compete for time at strong safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K Coleman Peterson was all-state in high school, but hasn't kicked in a game since 2005, when he was at Sandy (Utah) Brighton. Since then, he has redshirted as a true freshman, spent two years on the scout team and done a two-year church mission. P Sean Sellwood averaged 41 yards in 2010. Red flag, though: He also had three blocked. An adequate replacement is needed for the departed Shaky Smithson on kick returns, but there are plenty of speedy candidates to handle those chores. WRs Anderson and Reggie Dunn and CB Ryan Lacy are possibilities. Utah's coverage teams typically are sound.

the recruiting side
Average national rank past 5 years: 49th
The buzz: First-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow has been a big help in Utah's recruiting efforts, especially by landing early commitments from QBs Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen. Chow's addition will continue to help the recruiting effort and so will Utah's move to the Pac-12, where it can better recruit California talent. - ADAM GORNEY

IMPACT NEWCOMER

The Utes are counting on more than one. The running game certainly needs a boost and either White or Langi could provide it. White had more than 2,000 all-purpose yards last year at L.A. Harbor College, while Langi was a high school All-American and rushed for almost 1,400 yards as a senior at South Jordan (Utah) Bingham. Also capable of making an immediate impact is McGill, who will step into an area of need at Utah. But he still has some classes to pass and isn't expected in Salt Lake City until the first week of August camp.

SCHEDULE

For most of the past three decades, Utah has played archrival BYU in the final game of the regular season. This season, they play in Week 3 because neither is in the Mountain West anymore. During Whittingham's regime, the Utes often have started slow and improved as the season progressed. That could be a problem this season with road trips to USC and BYU in September. Utah doesn't play North Division favorites Oregon or Stanford, so that's a break. If the Utes are competitive through October, they have a chance to finish strong in the Pac-12 South race with November games against Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado.

OUTLOOK

Utah is 9-2 in its past 11 games against "Big Six" conference opponents (including Notre Dame). Yet doubters remain. The knock has been that Utah only had to play at a high level two or three times a year and didn't face the attrition that comes with the weekly grind of playing in a major conference. The move to the Pac-12 gives the Utes opportunity to answer skeptics. But these Utes aren't as talented as the 2004 and '08 versions that posted undefeated seasons. The pass rush and a rebuilt secondary may prove to be huge problems, and there are questions with the running game. A run of three consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories shows that Utah cannot be taken lightly, but reaching a double-digit victory total this season will be difficult.

For more on Utah now and throughout the season, check out UteZone.com

OFFENSE
QB Jordan Wynn (6-1/195, Jr.)
Tyler Shreve (6-3/220, Fr.)
RB John White IV (5-9/190, Jr.)
Harvey Langi (6-1/225, Fr.)
FB Karl Williams (6-0/235, Soph.)
Jake Murphy (6-4/255, R-Fr.)
WR Dres Anderson (6-1/179, R-Fr.)
Reggie Dunn (6-0/173, Jr.)
WR DeVonte Christopher (6-1/199, Jr.)
Anthony Denham (6-4/231, Jr.)
TE Kendrick Moeai (6-5/250, Jr.)
Westlee Tonga (6-4/250, Soph.)
LT John Cullen (6-5/298, Sr.)
Kapua Sai (6-5/307, Soph.)
LG Sam Brenner (6-3/300, Jr.)
Jeremiah Tofaeono (6-3/314, Soph.)
C Tevita Stevens (6-1/297, Jr.)
Vyncent Jones (6-3/295, Soph.)
RG Percy Taumoelau (6-4/314, Soph.)
Isaac Asiata (6-3/307, Fr.)
RT Tony Bergstrom (6-6/315, Sr.)
Daniel Nielson (6-6/316, Fr.)
K Coleman Petersen (6-2/192, Jr.)
PR Dres Anderson (6-1/179, R-Fr.)
DEFENSE
E Tevita Finau (6-5/283, Sr.)
Dave Kruger (6-5/280, Jr.)
T James Aiono (6-4/300, Sr.)
Dave Kruger (6-5/280, Jr.)
T Star Lotulelei (6-4/315, Jr.)
L.T. Tuipulotu (6-1/300, Soph.)
E Derrick Shelby (6-3/262, Jr.)
Joe Kruger (6-7/265, Soph.)
OLB Brian Blechen (6-2/222, Soph.)
Trevor Reilly (6-5/233, Soph.)
MLB Chaz Walker (6-0/223, Sr.)
J.J. Williams (6-0/220, Sr.)
OLB Matt Martinez (6-0/225, Sr.)
Jacoby Hale (6-0/220, R-Fr.)
CB Conroy Black (6-0/186, Sr.)
Reggie Topps (5-11/190, Jr.)
CB Ryan Lacy (5-10/185, Jr.)
Wykie Freeman (5-11/175, Soph.)
FS Keith McGill (6-3/200, Jr.)
Eric Rowe (6-1/177, Fr.)
SS Michael Walker (5-9/188, Soph.)
Greg Bird (6-2/214, Sr.)
P Sean Sellwood (6-3/200, Jr.)
KR Ryan Lacy (5-10/185, Jr.)

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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