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August 5, 2009Coach: Kyle Whittingham (37-14 in 5 seasons)
Last Season: 13-0, 8-0 in MWC (MWC Champions). Beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Final 2008 Rankings: #2 AP, #4 Coaches, #5 Rivals.com
Returning Starters: Offense: 4 Defense: 7 Special Teams: 0
Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 44th in 2009, 60th in 2008, 71st in 2007, 55th in 2006
2009 Rivals.com pre-season ranking: 22
Utah has a lot of holes to fill after a magical 2008 season where they finished as the only undefeated team in the country. Gone are 2008 catalysts Paul Kruger, Sean Smith, Freddie Brown, and Brian Johnson. Utah has recruited a solid base of speed and athleticism throughout the depth chart over the past few years. Now the staff needs these athletes to step up and become football players.
SCHEME: Utah runs a spread offense with various formations. The Utes will line up in the shotgun with a single back, a tight end and three receivers most of the time. Utah will go with four and five receivers at times. The option game looks to return this season with the receivers becoming wing-backs.
STAR POWER: Matt Asiata becomes the feature back after splitting carries last season with Darrell Mack. Despite coming off the bench, Asiata led the Utes with 707 yards and 12 touchdowns on 146 carries and is poised for a huge year in 2009. It took David Reed most of the season to get comfortable in the Utah offense, but finished the season strong catching 10 passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns in the last three games as the fourth receiver. Reed's game-breaking speed, great hands, and the ability to make tough, acrobatic catches have earned comparisons to NFL star and former Utah standout Steve Smith.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: WR Luke Matthews very nearly played last season despite being a true freshman at a position full of upperclassmen. Matthews put the redshirt year to good use adding size and improving his route running. The work has paid off as Matthews has drawn unsolicited rave reviews from the staff and his teammates. Matthews is already a starter on the depth chart as the fourth receiver and can only get better with his size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), athleticism, and work ethic.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Tony Bergstrom played extremely well in the spring at right tackle, replacing Dustin Hensel. Bergstrom is a more natural left tackle but with an All-American candidate in LT Zane Beadles, Bergstrom will start his career on the right side of the line. Bergstrom played well in his lone start for Beadles last season and should emerge as the next All-Conference caliber tackle for the Utes.
STRONGEST AREA: Utah returns three starters along the offensive line and four who have started at least one game. All-MWC honorees Beadles and Zane Taylor, along with possibly the most under-rated player in the conference in Caleb Schlauderaff have combined for 73 career starts. Bergstrom is a solid tackle with star potential. The only weakness is the fifth starter. Neli A'asa played well at right guard in the spring until he was sidelined with a minor knee injury. In his place the staff moved Taylor from center to right guard and a battle to replace Taylor at center began. Neither Tyler Williams nor Tevita Stevens stood out in the spring.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Without a question, it is quarterback. Gone is Johnson, the MWC Player of the Year and Sugar Bowl MVP. Replacing his experience, leadership, and ability to make the big play will be a huge task. All Utah is looking for is someone to make the right reads, take pressure off the running game, and keep the chains moving. Corbin Louks is the early favorite though JUCO Player of the Year Terrance Cain is right behind. Don't count out true freshman Jordan Wynn, either. Wynn has worked himself into the conversation and will compete with the other two for the starting job once fall camp starts.
SCHEME: Utah runs a base 4-3, though the Utes spend a great deal of time in the nickel as well. Utah will mix in some 3-4 and other unique alignments at times. Utah plays man-press coverage most of the time with at least one safety playing deep. New defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake looks to carry on the tradition of a high-pressure, aggressive unit.
STAR POWER: All-American candidate Stevenson Sylvester thrust himself into the national spotlight by recording three sacks and generating tremendous pressure in the Sugar Bowl. Sylvester uses his great speed and quickness to cause havoc as an all-around playmaker.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Conroy Black might have the best opportunity to make an impact. The Utes appear set with starting corners RJ Stanford and Brandon Burton, but with as much nickel as the Utes play Black could see a great deal of playing time. The former JUCO standout has everything the Utah staff looks for in a cornerback.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Derrick Shelby had a fantastic 2008 season playing out of position. Injuries to starters forced the natural edge rusher to play as a 245-pound defensive tackle. Shelby has moved back to end, added some weight, and is going to use the knowledge he gained playing inside to help the Utes overcome the loss of Kruger.
STRONGEST AREA: While most would say the strength of the defense is at linebacker, a healthy defensive line is where Utah's strength lies. Injuries did not allow 2008 starters Lei Talamaivao and Kenape Eliapo to play together last season, but gave youngsters Shelby and Sealver Siliga invaluable game experience. Kruger may be gone, but many in the program feel that Koa Misi was the better player last year and along with Shelby produce a more productive tandem. Nai Fotu moves up from linebacker to provide even more pass rushers on the edge. Nick Binks and Christian Cox need to step up and provide some more depth at end. Siliga grew up fast last season and will push Eliapo for the starting nose tackle spot. Utah's defensive line is faster, more athletic, and deeper than 2008's unit.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Corner is the position with the most questions. 2008 starters Brice McCain and Smith are now in the NFL. Stanford has experience, playing well in 2008 as the nickel back and split starting duties with Smith in 2007. Burton played extremely well in the spring and might be the best corner on the roster. Black will battle Lamar Chapman and fellow JC transfers Maxwell Lacy and Kamaron Yancy for the nickel spot. Depth is a concern and explains why the Utes brought in three JUCO corners.
Utah's biggest loss might be All-Everything kicker Louie Sakoda. A finalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards, Sakoda was a consensus All-American kicker in 2008 and was an All-American punter in 2007. Ben Vroman is penciled in as the placekicker and while he has a very strong leg (2nd nationally in touchbacks in 2008) he is somewhat erratic. Sean Sellwood, a South African soccer player who moved to Salt Lake three years ago and took up football, looks to take over the punting duties. Sellwood has a lot of potential, but he is still learning the game. True freshman Nick Marsh has the tools to come in and battle for either kicking position.
The return games will be very good. Matthews is electric with the ball in his hands and should improve Utah's "adventurous" punt returns. The Utes fumbled four times on punt returns in 2008. Reed came close to breaking a couple of kick returns for touchdowns in 2008 and will continue to return kicks in 2009 alongside the shifty Jereme Brooks.
Whittingham is one of the better coaches in college football. After struggling for various reasons in his first two seasons, Whittingham and the Utes put it together early in 2007 and have not looked back. Even with the youth and inexperience on the team, Whittingham has grown into his own as the man pulling the strings. While this team likely won't execute as well as the experience 2008 squad, don't count on a drop-off in intensity or attitude once the team runs out of the tunnel.
Utah lost offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to the same post at Cal and defensive coordinator Gary Andersen took the head job at Utah State. Whittingham replaced them with coaches who have been learning in the program for several years. New offensive coordinator Dave Schramm is putting the option back in Utah's spread option attack. Schramm's promotion came with a position switch as he will now coach the quarterbacks. Aaron Alford has switched sides of the ball, moving to coach the running backs after coaching the cornerbacks the past two seasons. Sitake will continue to run Whittingham's preferred attacking defense.
Utah's new hires are long-time NFL assistant Jon Pease who takes over the Andersen's defensive line job and J.D. Williams who brings NFL experience and techniques to teach Utah's young cornerbacks.
The good news for the new quarterback is that Utah eases into 2009. Make no mistake, the Utes will take each game seriously and are looking welcoming Andersen back to Salt Lake. The Utes toughest non-conference game will come in week three when they travel to Eugene to take on the Oregon Ducks. In conference play, Utah's challenge will be surviving the road tests against TCU and rival BYU, both expected to challenge for the conference crown. Don't overlook the road game against a young, up-and-coming Colorado State team. While the schedule might not look great from a national point of view, the road schedule looks to be brutal in an always competitive Mountain West.
Chances are the Utes will not go undefeated or play in a BCS bowl, but Utah should compete for the MWC title and have the chance to extend the nation's second longest bowl winning streak. In a rebuilding year with a difficult road schedule 8 or 9 wins would not be a disappointment. Exactly how Utah's season will turn out depends on the play of the new quarterback. Solid play at QB will compliment the solid running game and Utah's defense should keep them in every game.