2014 Utah Preview: What You Need To Know
Utah QB Travis Wilson
Preview 2014 - What You Need To Know About Utah (Getty Images)
2014 Utah Preview
What You Need To Know...
2014 Depth Chart & Unit Rankings To Come This Summer
What You Need To Know About The Offense: If there's one area of the Utes that best embodies their struggles in the Pac-12, it's the offense, which has ranked no higher than No. 11 in the league since joining three years ago. The job of turning the unit around now belongs to Dave Christensen, whose version of the spread will aim to speed up the tempo a little in 2014. The coordinator's hopes for a fast start in Salt Lake City hinge squarely on the health of QB Travis Wilson, who still hasn't been fully cleared for contact following last year's head injury. Yeah, Wilson was feast-or-famine before being injured, but there's no doubt he gives Utah its best chance to move the sticks. The offense flashes potential at the skill positions, led by big-play receiver Dres Anderson and steady RB Bubba Poole, who has so far held off the intense challenge of former American River (Calif.) College transfer Devontae Booker. Up front, Utah is big and physical, with massive Jeremiah Poutasi serving as the face of the group.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: With head coach Kyle Whittingham and coordinator Kalani Sitake calling the shots, Utah rarely has a defensive problem. Sure, there were cracks in the foundation in 2013, but the Utes have a history of rolling out physical, well-coached defenses that make opponents earn every point and yard. And this year ought to be no different. The D has All-Pac-12-caliber talent at every level, from DE Nate Orchard up front to FS Eric Rowe on the back end. In the middle, Utah will be especially stout if Miami transfer Gionni Paul's broken foot and Jacoby Hale's ACL tear heal quickly. Paul, in particular, was terrific in the spring before getting hurt, earning the respect of the team with his nastiness and natural leadership skills. The Utes, though, do have holes needing to be filled now that DE Trevor Reilly, DT Tenny Palepoi and CB Keith McGill are with NFL teams. With injuries being such a buzzy topic around Salt Lake City these days, it would be a good time for oft-dinged S Brian Blechen to finally put it all together in his senior season.
Players You Need To Know
1. WR Dres Anderson, Sr.
After laying a foundation for success in his first two seasons, Anderson really took off as a junior. He caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns to set career-highs in all three categories. The 6-1, 187-pound speedster was consistent as well, compiling six 100-yard receiving games, including at least one in each month of the season. Anderson, whose father Flipper was an NFL receiver, plans to take his game to an entirely different level after being named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2013.
2. DE Nate Orchard, Sr.
After complementing Trevor Reilly in 2013, Orchard is set to become the Utes' top pass rusher this year. He's a third-year starter, with the 4.6 speed and the non-stop motor to beat opposing tackles around the corner. Orchard achieved career-highs with 50 tackles, nine stops for loss and 3.5 sacks, but he endured nagging injuries throughout most of the season. Now that the 6-3, 255-pounder is fully healthy, he's hoping to parlay his best fall to date into All-Pac-12 honors and NFL attention.
3. FS Eric Rowe, Sr.
Rowe has grown up nicely in Salt Lake City, going from a true freshman starter in 2011 to the brink of an NFL career. The three-year starter possesses many of the attributes needed to be a top free safety, from his 6-1, 205-pound frame to his instincts, leadership and experience. Rowe can play cornerback, if needed, testament to the staff's comfort level in his coverage skills. The cagey veteran of 35 starts tied a career-high with 69 tackles and seven pass breakups in 2013, but he needs to improve his ball skills.
4. OL Jeremiah Poutasi, Jr.
Poutasi struggled as a left tackle last year, so the staff moved him inside to guard, but could line him up back at left tackle after all. Problem solved? The 6-5, 345-pound road-grader is a merciless run blocker, who'll get burned at times by pass rushers who are substantially quicker and smaller. On the interior, though, Poutasi will be in the right spot to begin emerging as an All-Pac-12 candidate and a next-level blocker. On strength and size alone, he'll be able to manhandle plenty of opposing linemen this season. Plus, he's shed some unnecessary pounds, which will help his mobility and conditioning in the fall.
5. LB Jason Whittingham, Jr.
Playing defense apparently runs in the family. The nephew of head coach Kyle Whittingham finished second on the Utes with 81 tackles, despite missing the first two games with a hand injury. As one of the fastest members of the front seven, he reads and reacts quickly, especially on running plays. After being named honorable mention All-Pac-12 a year ago, Whittingham is poised to climb a little higher up the conference ladder in his second full season as a starter.
6. QB Travis Wilson, Jr.
Wilson is back. Sort of. After missing the final three games with a head injury that still threatens to impact his career, the junior practiced sans contact in the spring. The Utes need him to not only be on the field in 2014, but to also be as fearless as he was last fall. Yeah, Wilson was wildly erratic at times. He was also the offense's best playmaker, especially against BYU, Oregon State and Stanford. The 6-7, 240-pound thoroughbred possesses an enormous ceiling if his potential can be properly harnessed. In nine games, Wilson accounted for 21 touchdowns and 2,213 yards, but his accuracy and decision-making must improve.
7. P Tom Hackett, Jr.
Hackett was the defense's best friend a year ago, repeatedly pinning opponents deep in their own territory. The one-time walk-on from Melbourne, Australia took his game to an entirely different level in 2013 to cop a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team. Hackett didn't just improve his distance to an average of 43.4 yards; he also became an ace on his placement and directional kicks. Utah was 11th nationally in net punting mainly because of Hackett's finesse as a punter.
8. SS Brian Blechen, Sr.
The coaching staff is ecstatic—and cautiously optimistic—about the return of Blechen, who missed all of 2013 with tendonitis in his knee. He's one of the catalysts of the D, the type of player who's always causing havoc, because he's never far from the ball. The 6-2, 225-pound Blechen plays the game on the edge, roaming the back seven with a chip on his shoulder. After bouncing between linebacker and the secondary, the Utes appear content to finally allow their intimidator to settle down at strong safety.
9. OG Junior Salt, Sr.
The elder statesman of the roster, Salt is a 26-year-old adult and one of the steadiest performers up front for the Utes. He finally suited up for the program in 2013 after serving an LDS Church mission in Tonga and playing defensive tackle at Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) College. Salt is a powerful run blocker, using his 6-2, 325-pound frame to drive defenders off the ball. He sat out the spring, but will be at full strength when the team returns to practice this summer.
10. PK Andy Phillips, Soph.
Utah has concerns. Special teams is not one of them. Phillips is one-half of arguably the best kicking tandem in the Pac-12. A rather remarkable tale, he never played football prior to walking on with the Utes in 2012. In fact, Phillips is far more prolific on the slopes than on grass, competing from 2007-11 on the U.S. Ski Team. However, he was a natural in his Utah debut, hitting 17-of-20 field goals, including 9-of-11 beyond 40 yards to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12.
11. WR Kenneth Scott, Jr.
Scott's junior season lasted less than one quarter, the result of a season-ending leg injury. His sure hands and ability to complement the jets of Dres Anderson on the opposite side was missed. He's a physical 6-3, 211-pound possession receiver, who can outmuscle defenders for position. Scott scratched the surface of his potential in 2012, when he caught a career-high 32 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns. He's determined to pick up where he left off nearly two years ago.
12. LB Jared Norris, Jr.
Norris started coming into his own at Rover, setting the stage for a terrific second-half to his career in Salt Lake City. Despite missing a pair of games, he finished fifth on the team with 64 tackles to go along with 4.5 stops for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Norris was especially active against Arizona and UCLA, instinctively filling lanes in run defense. At 6-1 and 230 pounds, he plays with the tenacity and the pad level to consistently hammer the man with the ball.
- 2014 Utah Preview