2011 Utah Preview
Utah OT Tony Bergstrom
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Utah Utes Breakdown
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By Richard Cirminiello
Utah is getting a well-deserved seat at the adult table. The Pac-12 is getting one of the country's most consistent programs of the past decade.
Head coach: Kyle Whittingham
7th year: 58-20
Off. 23, Def. 26, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 26
Ten Best Utah Players
1. QB Jordan Wynn, Jr.
2. RT Tony Bergstrom, Sr.
3. LB Brian Blechen, Soph.
4. WR DeVonte Christopher, Jr.
5. LB Chaz Walker, Sr.
6. NT Star Lotulelei, Jr.
7. DE Dave Kruger, Jr.
8. LB Matt Martinez, Sr.
9. C Tevita Stevens, Jr.
10. DE Derrick Shelby, Sr.
Sep. 1 Montana State
Sep. 10 at USC
Sep. 17 at BYU
Sep. 24 OPEN DATE
Oct. 1 Washington
Oct. 8 Arizona State
Oct. 15 at Pitt
Oct. 22 at California
Oct. 29 Oregon State
Nov. 5 at Arizona
Nov. 12 UCLA
Nov. 19 at Washington St
Nov. 26 Colorado
Life will never again be the same for the Ute program, the one-time BCS buster out of the Mountain West that's about to make its debut as a member of a BCS conference. Perfect seasons will no longer be the mandate to bowl in January, and the exposure from playing in the Pac-12 will pay dividends on a multitude of levels. Utah has arrived, the reward for reeling off eight consecutive winning seasons, five of which ended in the Top 25.
While Urban Meyer was the original catalyst for Utah's current station in life, it's Kyle Whittingham who has taken the baton and carried the school to new heights. The Utes have won at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons, winning the Mountain West and going 13-0 in 2008. The staff has consistently done a remarkable job of coaching up marginal recruits that the old Pac-10 passed on. Since 2005, the program has sent 21 of its athletes to the NFL, many of whom began their careers as lightly-recruited high school prospects.
The Utes will begin their Pac-12 tenure trying to shake the memories of last season's 2-3 finish. After vaulting deep into the BCS rankings with an 8-0 start, they collapsed during a listless final month, losing badly to TCU, Notre Dame, and Boise State. The school is confident there's enough talent for a rebound, especially since QB Jordan Wynn is on his way back from shoulder surgery.
The leader of the offense will be learning from one of the game's best offensive minds, Norm Chow, who's making a ballyhooed return to the state where he first gained prominence. The well-protected Wynn will lean on WR DeVonte Christopher in the passing game, but the identity of his feature back remains shrouded in mystery. Rookie Harvey Langi, junior-college transfer John White, and rugby player Thretton Palamo will continue their quest for carries in August.
The front-loaded defense will again be stingy. The Utes are looking to build on last season, when it yielded just 20 points a game. The backbone is a veteran-laden front seven that's harboring a slew of blooming all-stars. While DE Dave Kruger, NT Star Lotulelei, and the linebackers are unknowns in Pac-12 circles today, that will not be the case by December. The concern for coordinator Kalani Sitake revolves around a secondary that wilted late in 2010 and will be breaking in four new starters.
These are heady times in Salt Lake City. No longer a member of the so-called "mid-majors", the Utes are set to play with the big boys in the new Pac-12 on a week-in, week-out basis. While Utah probably won't nab a Rose Bowl bid this quickly, the mere opportunity to participate in one of the Big 6 conferences is a credit to the work being done by Whittingham and his staff.
What to watch for on offense: The three-headed backfield. The Utes are determined to replace the ground game production of Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, who gave the school a terrific tandem the last two seasons. Competing for playing time will be a diverse, and hopefully complimentary, trio. The future belongs to true freshman Harvey Langi, a heralded 6-1, 225-pounder. Junior college transfer John White will bring some dash and an all-purpose element to the running game. Thretton Palamo, the youngest athlete to ever play in rugby's World Cup, is an intriguing 6-2, 240-pound masher. The task of the staff is to find the right mix of talent when practice reconvenes in August.
What to watch for on defense: Getting the Star treatment. Just a part-time starter in 2010, junior NT Star Lotulelei is about to become a full-time nuisance for opposing Pac-12 blockers. The 6-4, 320-pounder is in the best shape of his career, which is going to enhance his already quick feet and explosiveness off the snap. A classic run stuffer on the interior of the line, he'll either penetrate on his own or make life easier by occupying multiple blockers. Lotulelei is the kind of force that the conference is accustomed to seeing at places, such as USC.
The team will be far better if… it cuts down on all of the turnovers. The Utes finished next to last in the Mountain West in giveaways, turning it over 26 times. It was a particular problem over the course of the second half of the year as the offense produced no more than 17 points in four of the final six games. With better ball protection, a Utah offense that averaged more than 33 points a game could have normed closer to 40 points each Saturday. The Pac-12 will be even less forgiving to a team that can't get a handle on the ball.
The Schedule: Can Utah make a huge splash in its first year in a big-time league? There's still the tie to the old roots with the key early game at BYU, but unlike normal years, the nasty rivalry date is in mid-September instead of the end of the year. While the game will still mean everything to both sides, considering the Utes kick off Pac 12 play the week before at USC, the Holy War will probably lose its luster for Utah. With two home games in a row following an off week, the Utes have to be ready for a run of three road games in four weeks and four in six weeks. Fortunately, there's no Oregon on the slate and missing Stanford from the North is a plus. While the USC game is on the road, and going to Arizona will be a battle, getting UCLA and Colorado in Salt Lake City in November should help the bowl position.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Jordan Wynn. While Wynn threw for 17 touchdowns and 2,334 yards, his value to the program extends far beyond the numbers. The 6-1, 201-pounder is flush with intangibles, bringing poise and a winning attitude to the huddle. Since taking over the starting job as a true freshman in 2009, the junior has gone 11-4 and been named Poinsettia Bowl MVP. WR DeVonte Christopher is more dynamic and OT Tony Bergstrom has a brighter NFL future, but it's No. 3 who keeps this offense rolling.
Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Brian Blechen. Considering Blechen was a high school quarterback just a year earlier, he authored a remarkable debut as a Ute. As a first-year safety, the 6-2, 225-pounder gained Freshman All-American recognition for making 67 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, and a team-high four interceptions. As the stud linebacker, the staff expects him to be every bit as ubiquitous as he was in 2010. The instinctive and athletic performer is about to become Utah's best all-around defender against the run and the pass.
Key players to a successful season: The defensive backs. It was no coincidence that the Utes collapse toward the end of last year happened at the same time that the secondary began emulating a sieve. Over the final five games, three of which were lopsided losses, Utah yielded 14 touchdown passes and intercepted only five. Now that all four of the starters from that group are playing somewhere else, the program will be forced to rebuild around newcomers and former backups. The best of the bunch appear to be CB Conroy Black and former FS Keith McGill, a high-profile JUCO pick-up. The Utes need both to perform as if they've been in this position before.
The season will be a success if ... the Utes win eight games. If Utah can go 8-4 in the regular season in its debut in a much tougher league, it'd be an outstanding foundation for the future. As expected, this could be the program's toughest schedule in school history. After hosting Montana State on Sept. 1, there won't be many lay-ups the rest of the way. September will be a particularly tough proving ground, with trips to the Coliseum to face USC and Provo a week later to renew the rivalry with BYU.
Key game: Sept. 17 at BYU. For the first time since 1999, the old rivals won't be competing as members of the Mountain West Conference now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and the Cougars are an Independent. However, this is the Holy War, which brings the entire state to a halt each year. The programs have delivered a series of classics in recent seasons, a trend that's liable to continue with this rare September edition of the game.
2010 Fun Stats:
- Yards per carry: Utah 4.6 – Opponents 3.2
- Fourth-down conversions: Utah 65% – Opponents 21%
- Second-quarter scoring: Utah 162 - Opponents 58
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2011 Utah Defense |
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