The current state of the Utah football program vaguely reminds me of Arnold in the Kindergarten Cop. The Utes appear to have everything together, coming off of a nine-win season, but the internal turmoil is threatening to bring the program down a notch or two. Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill apparently do not get along very well, and it’s probably only a matter of time before one of those guys is back in the job marker. It’s also worth noting that Whittingham also has to bring in two new coordinators for 2015.
Devontae Booker was a true star for this Ute offense in 2014. He rushed for 1,512 yards and ten touchdowns, and over 600 of those yards were after contact. The Utes O-Line isn’t the worst in the world, but having a guy who can turn negatives into positives is always useful. Travis Wilson was also a fairly capable rusher from the quarterback spot too, amassing over 450 yards on non-sack rushes and five rushing touchdowns.
Travis Wilson was also a solid passer…in spurts. His overall numbers are actually really good: over 60% completion percentage and an 18:5 touchdown ratio. If you look at the game splits though, his play was fairly erratic. Wilson started hot completing 66% of his passes for seven touchdowns and no picks in the first three games of the season. Then, the lull hits. Over the next five games, just over half of his passes were completed and he threw a mere two touchdowns passes. Still no interceptions, but a rapidly diminished level of production. Wilson’s encore was arguably both better and worse. He threw all five of his interceptions in the last five games of the season, but also rebounded in the completion percentage and touchdowns department at 66% and nine respectively.
Utah is pretty set on the left side of the line and at center with all three of the starters having 13 or more career starts. Center Siaosi Aiono leads the was with 21 career starts. Lack of access to a reliable depth chart has me pretty much guessing at the right side of the line, but the safest bet at right guard is Salesi Uhbatafe who has five career starts there. Junior Sam Tevi is the most likely candidate to start at right tackle despite having never started a game.
Kenneth Scott is a 500-yard returning receiver, but you’ll need more than a crystal ball to tell who is going to step up beside him at receiver. Tim Patrick is the only other returning receiver to top 100 receiving yards last season. Booker did pitch in 311 yards receiving last season, and should be a major factor in the receiving game again.
Even with the loss of second-round pick Nate Orchard, Utah returns a trio of defensive linemen that should be one of the strongest in the conference. Jason Fanaika and Hunter Dimick at defensive end both hit the forty tackle mark last season and combined for 24 tackles for loss and 15 sacks (ten of which were by Dimick). They should get plenty of help inside from Lowell Lotulelei who had 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble last season.
Jared Norris should also be a force at linebacker again this season for the Utes. Norris led the team with 89.5 tackles, thirteen of those were behind the line of scrimmage. Gionni Paul also made some solid contributions in the eight games he appeared in accruing 48 tackles and a whopping four interceptions in that span. No other member of this linebacking corps recorded more than twenty tackles last season, but the next closest was Jason Whittingham who had 14.5 tackles in five games.
A strong front seven (especially on the line) will likely need to bail out a very inexperienced pair of corners. Justin Thomas may slide out from nickelback to corner to give the Utes at least one reasonably experienced corner, but if not Utah will have to turn to South Carolina transfer Ahmad Christian to find a cornerback with any legitimate college experience. The safety situation is a little better though with Marcus Williams and either Tevin Carter or Andre Godfrey. Williams had 51 tackles last season.
This is a team with both plenty of question marks and plenty of reasons for optimism. They also get a chance to show what they’ve got early on when they host Michigan on the first Thursday of the season. If Travis Wilson can play more consistently and Devontae Booker continues to be a one-man wrecking ball at running back, then this team might could be a dark horse contender in the loaded Pac-12 South. However, with the “front office” turmoil and still plenty of question marks at the back of the defense and the fact that we have yet to see consistent play from Wilson, I expect this to be a bowl team, but not much more.