By: Steven Lassan | 5/14/12, 4:43 PM EDT
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You can read the entire Utah preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 Pac-12 magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
Pac-12 South PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, 65-25 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kalani Sitake
Brian Johnson was two weeks shy of his 25th birthday in February when he was promoted from Utah’s quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. “I think we’re explosive enough and talented enough to be really, really good,” says Johnson, who replaced Norm Chow, now Hawaii’s head coach.
To fulfill Johnson’s forecast, the Utes would have to improve dramatically. Utah finished last in the Pac-12 and 109th nationally in total offense in 2011, averaging 310.9 yards.
The quarterbacking depth chart is a sign of progress. Jon Hays went 6–3 as a fill-in starter, yet he was relegated to fourth string in spring drills. Former starter Jordan Wynn is healthy, and freshman Travis Wilson was impressive in the spring after enrolling at Utah in January.
With only a modest passing attack to complement him, running back John White took on a huge workload as a junior college transfer. He came through with a school-record 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The absence of a top-tier quarterback kept Utah’s receivers from compiling big statistics in 2011, but the Utes have experience and talent at this position, led by DeVonte Christopher.
The Utes lost tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen, who played a major role in White’s rushing record. The interior of the line appears solid, with center Tevita Stevens and guards Sam Brenner and Jeremiah Tofaeono.
The story of Utah’s defense starts with tackle Star Lotulelei, who won the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's top defensive lineman. Lotulelei tied for second on the team with nine tackles for a loss. He’s nimble enough to have rumbled 17 yards after catching a pass on a fake punt against California.
The Utes lost Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, their top two tacklers in 2011. Yet they have a history of finding solid replacements at the linebacker position. Middle linebacker V.J. Fehoko was impressive in the spring after not playing much as a freshman, and Trevor Reilly is a disruptive pass-rusher.
Utah gives its corners mostly man-to-man assignments that allow the safeties to help in run support and blitzes. Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee appear ready for full-time roles as seniors, having shared one corner position last season. The safeties, junior Brian Blechen and sophomore Eric Rowe, are former Freshman All-Americans. Known for his aggressive style, Blechen has seven interceptions in two seasons, and Rowe broke up nine passes in 2011.
Coleman Petersen kicked four field goals in a win at Pittsburgh and was a hero of Utah’s overtime defeat of Washington State, making three field goals (including a game-winner) in cold, snowy conditions. But he missed all three attempts the following week against Colorado in a 17–14 loss. Sean Sellwood produced four punts of 53 yards or longer in the Sun Bowl and increased his average to 45.0 yards for the season.
Utah came within a missed field goal of forcing overtime with a chance of advancing to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. As it was, they finished with a losing record (4–5) in conference play in their first season in the Pac-12 but remained in the South race only because USC was ineligible for postseason play. “We had a good start,” says coach Kyle Whittingham, “but we have to continue to do everything better.”
Utah’s defense matched up well with most Pac-12 offenses and returns mostly intact. If the offense improves as much as expected, the Utes should rank among the conference’s top teams.