1. Offense Led by Dennis Erickson
UTECENTRAL: While the Utes technically have a brand new “Co”- Offensive Coordinator in Dennis Erickson, the Utes bring in a play caller who is experienced and knows the spread offense from top to bottom. Fans should expect to see improved play calling from Erickson who also brings over 40 years of coaching experience to an offensive staff that truly needs it. The offense should be crisper, faster and more effective under Erickson’s direction. It was clear during spring practices and scrimmages that the offense is vastly improved and well on it’s way to being average.
Average isn’t very exciting you say?
Average would be a huge improvement from where the Utes have been in most Pac-12 offensive categories the last two seasons. Mark it down! They will be better and they will finish higher than 60th in the country in total offense and in the middle of the Pac-12 offensive standings this year.
UTESOFUTAH: I couldn’t agree more with @utecentral about Dennis Erickson’s hire as a reason for hope this fall. I remember receiving that update while at work and wanting to scream out of joy. No, he is not going to solve every problem. He can’t protect Travis Wilson’s blind side, or prevent injuries from happening. And the Utes aren’t going to put up 40 points a game all of the sudden, though likely against the team down South. He will however, provide invaluable experience in preparing for and competing against PAC-12 schools. Having coached at multiple universities among the PAC, Erickson has forgotten more about each school than any current Utah coach knows. His expertise does indeed provide optimism for the fall.
2. Solid Starting QB in Travis Wilson
UTECENTRAL: One thing the Utes sorely missed last year was an offensive identity. They ran a pro-style set with Jordan Wynn, then transitioned to a simplified high school offense for backup Jon Hays (I’m being a bit harsh, but you get the point) followed by the switch to the spread attack for true freshman Travis Wilson. I bet my left… nose that no other Division I team had the craziness that Utes did when it came to the quarterback position last season.
With Wilson slated as starter, expect to see what you haven’t seen since the days of Brian Johnson. That’s right, a passing game will return this season along with a much more confident and competitive team. Wilson demonstrated that he has the skills and mentality to lead the Utes to a better record and a bowl game in 2013.
UTESOFUTAH: Consistency is the ever elusive pot of gold in a game where almost a fourth of the team graduates each year. It is a difficult task to create the necessary chemistry between offensive linemen, timing between the quarterback and his receivers, and trust along the defensive front and backfield. Fortunately for the Utes, Travis Wilson started in 7 games last year and has all three receiving yards leaders returning in Jake Murphy, Dres Anderson, and Kenneth Scott. With more than half of a season as a starter and two off seasons to perfect his technique and timing, Wilson is poised for a breakout sophomore year.
3. Deeper and Stronger Offensive Line
UTECENTRAL: Last season the Utes had two very large holes to fill on the offensive line with the graduation of future NFL’er Tony Bergstrom and all Pac-12 performer John Cullen. As the Utes worked their way through last year’s spring camp, Coach Whittingham warned that the offensive line was a big concern and that filling those two spots was the Ute’s top priority. By the time spring camp closed, it was obvious that the Utes were still searching for replacements at both right and left tackle spots and the uncertainty continued as the Utes went through fall camp and began the 2012 campaign. You’ll remember the Utes shuffled the offensive line for most of the season and their hopes for continuity faded away along with their chances for a winning campaign.
What a difference a year makes!
The Utes enter the season with perhaps their biggest and best offensive line in recent memory, with a projected starting unit that averages 320 pounds and stands 6-3 tall. I recently heard from a Utah Football insider that former Utes, currently playing in the NFL, have stated that the 2013 O-line is amongst the biggest and strongest they’d ever seen at Utah. In fact, they believe that the Utes’ current projected starting line has several players who have a chance to play at the next level.
Everyone talks about Poutasi (left tackle) ,who should have a huge breakout year, but also keep your eye on Junior Salt and Jeremiah Toefaeono on the right side of the line. Salt, while a very nice and soft spoken person off the field, showed a nasty streak during the Ute’s Red-White game earlier this year. While this offensive line isn’t laden with loads of preseason awards, several players will be well known in the conference by season’s end.
4. Defensive Line Just Keeps Reloading
UTECENTRAL: Admittedly, I have my annual freakout when I look at departures on the defensive line. I’ll usually say things like, “Oh how will the Utes ever replace Paul Kruger,” and the following season say things like, “What are we going to do without Koa Misi?” The next year I’ll say things like, “How are we going to survive without Shelby and now Lotulelei?”
Well, each year Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake just keep reloading this position group and assure fans that the line won’t miss a beat. Names like Tenny Palopoi, Viliseni Fauonuku, and senior LT Tuipulotu are sure to be the next big names on the defensive line and continue the Ute’s tradition of solid play in the trenches.
Do you expect anything different after their track record?
5. Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake
UTESOFUTAH: Yes, the defensive line is gone only returning one starter in Nate Orchard. Yes, the linebacking core greatly underperformed last season. And we all know the defensive backs aren’t battled tested just yet. BUT, do not forget that this is Kyle Whittingham’s team and Kalani Sitake’s defense. Utah’s formidable and in most cases downright dominate defense has been the only constant in the last decade, finishing among the top 40 in the nation every year. The team up on the hill has become a factory of defensive stars ready to play at the next level. With the offense looking capable to move the chains like we haven’t seen in years, this inexperienced defense will prove to be a strength yet again.
6. More Experienced and Speedier Linebackers
UTECENTRAL: Last year’s linebacker play was the worst in recent memory as the Utes tried to fill the spots vacated by seniors Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez. This years group comes back with more speed and experience as Brian Blechen steps into the roll full time as he enters his senior season. Admittedly the play of V.J. Fehoko and L.T. Filiaga improved as the season progressed with Fehoko playing his best game in the Ute’s victory over Colorado. Look for Reshawn Hooker, Jacoby Hale and Jared Norris to make some noise at this position as well this year.
7. The Utes Are Getting Used to this “Pac-12 Thing”
UTECENTRAL: 2013 will be the Ute’s third season in the conference and for many of the starters, the Pac-12 is becoming a more familiar place. They have already played on the road at USC, WSU and Arizona. Yes, Oregon on the road and Stanford at home will be new, but the other seven conference games are becoming “old hat” in some regards. They are still exciting and are games filled with lots of anticipation, but the Utes can say that “they’ve been there and done that,” which will be a big plus as they work towards a breakout year in the conference.
UTESOFUTAH: It could be alarming how the Utes are “getting used” to the Pac-12 grind, because they have gone a lousy 7-11. Utah does not want to become accustomed to mediocrity and bowless seasons, after enjoying incredible success for so long, but this isn’t what @utecentral was saying. Utah’s third go around competing against top talent every week, in world class venues, is a season of no excuses. They are no longer the wide-eyed new guys. The nerves have been calmed, whether through experience or getting them stomped out by ASU and the lot, it’s now time to play with nothing to lose. And the team on the hill performs best when everyone counts them out.
8. The Schedule
UTESOFUTAH: Yes, the Utes’ schedule is a reason to be optimistic this year. Call me crazy. I know they play 6-8 games in a row against likely top 25 teams. I understand they play two top five teams, Oregon at Autzen Stadium and Stanford at home. However, their first three games are at home in front of the MUSS against lesser opponents. Then, the Holy War where Utah has won 8 out of the last 11. Things look up to start 4-0, which will help them build confidence heading into the meat of their schedule. With seven home games and two well-placed byes, the Utes’ schedule will indeed help them accomplish their goal to bowl at season’s end.
UTECENTRAL: I’ll call you crazy on this one. They have a murderous stretch that could possibly end up in 6 to 8 straight games against nationally ranked opponents. I will say that if they start 4-0, it could set up the Utes to go into that stretch with a level of confidence we have yet to see in Pac-12 era.