the Gekko Files: Utah 2014 Preview

Charting a course to bowl eligibility is at the top of Kyle Whittingham's mind in 2014. - Steve Dykes

Four years into the Pac 12 - and four offensive coordinators later - Kyle Whittingham is still looking to catch a break in the Pac 12 South.

It wasn't supposed to be so difficult.

Sure, everybody expected a learning curve - even the most optimistic of Utah fans.  But the trajectory was supposed to be upward sloping ... hockey-stickish if you will.  Kyle Whittinham, the renowned giant killer, had lucked out and landed in the "weaker" half of the conference, the South Division, which was notable due to the fact that one of the premiere programs in all of CFB was hamstrung by severe sanctions.  A few years of flexing their new recruiting muscle was the only ingredient that needed to be added to Whittingham's tough-nosed, inside-out philosophy to produce a perennial Pac 12 contender.  Right?

Not so fast.

Things have not gone so well for Utah since they joined the Pac 12 four seasons ago (they have completed three seasons, this being the fourth).  In fact, one could argue that the upward trajectory that everybody expected to see has not only not materialized, it has flat-out inverted.  Bad luck aside (and there has been plenty of that - particularly on the injury front), Whittingham has overseen a lot of deterioration in a number of areas since that first season when Utah managed a four-game P12 win streak and actually was relevant in the P12 South race.  The O-Line has regressed.  The linebacking corps has failed to impress.  The QB situation ... oy. The offensive coordinator situation ... double oy.

The Utes managed four P12 wins in their inaugural 2011 season.  The last two seasons, they've managed just five combined.  Four of those five have come against really bad Cal, WSU and Col (x2) teams.  Their upset of Stanford last year being the lone "upset" over that span.

It has gotten bad in Salt Lake and the natives are restless.  Many fans have already lost faith in the current regime.  Another five win campaign threatens the loyalty of those that have not yet lost theirs.  2014 is a pivotal season for Kyle Whittingham et al.  What happens from here, nobody knows.

Well, the Gekko knows.

2013 Recap - What I Said

My 2013 Utah Utes Gekko File predicted:

Predicted Divisional Rank
5th
Actual Divisional Rank
5th
2013 Overall Prediction
2-7
2013 Actual Overall
2-7

Here are some of my verbatims pulled right from the 2013 file:

Nothing about the 2013 season feels good to me... It started with Kyle Whittingham's comments that the road to competitiveness in the Pac 12 may be bumpier than fans expected... It kept going with the awkward hiring of Dennis Erickson ... It ends with the realization that the Utah team - unfamiliar on offense, and weakened on defense - will play an eminently more difficult schedule this season.

...

Utah may be lucky to find three conference wins.

Needless to say, my forecast was pretty much spot on, although a serious injury to starting QB Travis Wilson made my bogey much easier to achieve.

Just about everything that could go haywire for Utah did go haywire.  It started with the very awkward hiring of Dennis Erickson as the OC.  Erickson replaced the young Brian Johnson who had been Whitthingham's hand-picked OC before that.  The fact that Johnson remained on the staff did nothing to make the situation any less awkward.

Once the season began, things continued to spiral, despite Whittingham's best efforts to control matters.  To their credit, the Utes handled their OOC business thanks to very close wins against both BYU and Utah State.  However, their conference season got off to a rocky start with a tough-to-digest OT shootout loss to the Beavers (51-48).  A narrow defeat at the hands of UCLA preceded the highlight of Utah's P12 experience - an upset over #5 Stanford in Salt Lake.  This would be the last feel-good moment of the season as Utah would complete the season with five straight P12 losses before barely handling Colorado and finishing the season with five wins - one shy of bowl eligibility.

Previewing 2014:  The Utes

I like to think about the Utah football team the same way that Whittingham does:  line of scrimmage out.  The trenches have always been a point of emphasis for Whittingham and have always been where he's hung his hat when directing all of the upsets he's achieved over other major programs.

The defensive line of scrimmage probably should be viewed as a position of strength for the Utes not so much based on previous accomplishment but due to the number of available, P12-caliber bodies that are ready to contribute.  The best player on the squad is Sr DE Nate Orchard.  Orchard, a 6'4" 255 pass rusher, had a true breakout performance in the Stanford upset with two sacks and two forced fumbles.  While the interior has been battling injuries and compensating for the loss of Tenny Palepoi will be tough, there is depth there for the highly respected Kalani Sitake to mold.  Young players like Viliseni Fauonuku (Jr DT) and Pita Taumoepenu (So DE) are going to be critical to the Utes.  Jason Fanaika (Jr DE) is an important rotation player who is kind of like our own Andrew Hudson - he can slide inside when needed and give the Utes a lot of flexibility on the line.  He's battling Hunter Dimick - a pure 3T as a Soph.

The offensive line returns three starters, two of whom are somewhere between "able" and "very, very good" on the Gekko eyeball scale.  Sr Junior Salt was a highly regarded recruit who looks to have come into his own on the interior of the Utah line while Jr Jeremiah Potasi, a giant of a man, has strong potential at the LT position.  The importance of this left side cannot be understated as they will have the primary responsibility for protecting the blind side of QB Travis Wilson.  Wilson, who has been contending with head injury issues since he started playing as a true frosh, is one of the taller QBs in the league and has made his mark as a dual-threat option.  While new OC Dave Christensen likes to play up-tempo spread, I expect that Wilson will be expected to do more with his arms than his legs in 2014, thus amplifying the importance of his OL support.

When Wilson is on the field, he will no doubt be focused on his top weapon, Sr WR Dres Anderson.  Anderson is a returning 1,000 yard receiver and considered to be one of the top receivers in the nation.  Beyond Anderson, the skill positions get a little murky.  The Utes top weapon from a year ago, TE Jake Murphy, is gone with no obvious heir apparent.  Look for the Utes to utilize Sr Westlee Tonga as an in-line blocker and look to other wideouts to replace Murphy's production.  One candidate is the electric JC transfer, Kaelin Clay.  A return to health by WR Kenneth Scott would also be huge for Utah.  Even bigger would be a return to a strong running game.  The Utes RB corps definitely has potential with incumbent Bubba Poole being challenged by JC transfer Davonte Booker (yes, the WSU Booker).

Of course, for Utah, Defense will always trump offense.  Beyond the D-Line, the Utes have a lot of work to do to recoup from a difficult season in 2013.  The LB corps is a mess right now with key players managing through a variety of health issues.  Look for that situation to get sorted out this spring.  Key to the mix will be the return to form of one of their leaders, Jason Whittingham.  The defensive secondary, which generated just three interceptions in 2013, welcomes back a key leader in Sr Brian Blechen.  His return along with the emergence of JC transfer Tevin Carter could shift Sr Eric Rowe out to CB.  This is key because Rowe is a bigger player who can be a factor in the pass D.  If the health issues all work themselves out, the Utes back seven could be a major P12 surprise in 2014.

Three Questions and a Comment:  Shane Roberts, Block U

1.  What twists on offense do Utah fans expect to see with Husky alumnus Dave Christensen now installed as the new offensive coordinator?

Dave Christensen is a very welcome addition to Utah’s offense. He’s a no nonsense coach and is all about the details. If the route is a 5-yard out, you run 5-yards, not 5 1/2 or 4 3/4. The key addition that Christensen will bring to Utah’s offense is tempo. While Utah did go faster last year, until Travis Wilson went down, they would mix up speeds a little bit. Coach Christensen wants to go fast at all times. I’d also expect a little bit more of an air based attack, but with the short to intermediate passing game - and plenty of check downs to running backs in the pass game. Utah has had a tendency to self-destruct on offense with stupid penalties and bad turnovers, with Coach Christensen’s attention to detail that should hopefully be cut down dramatically.

2.  Who is the most important playmaker that Utah has on Offense?  On Defense?  Why?

The most important play-maker on Utah’s offense WR Kenneth Scott. Scott went down in game one last year against Utah State with a broken leg. Scott is a big, fast, and sure-handed wide out. While Dres Anderson did have over a 1000 yards last season, he did much of it early on in the season before teams started rolling a safety over to his side. Outside of Dres, Utah didn’t have a true number two wide out. And once Jake Murphy went down with injury, the receiving game was hurting badly. Scott will keep secondaries honest and will be key to getting those tough 1st downs and keeping the chains moving during drives. He will also be the most reliable option for whomever is the starting quarterback in 2014.

On defense it will be Brian Blechen. The former freshman All-American is returning from a lost 2013 due to knee issues. All indications are he’s back to full strength and better than ever. He has experience at both safety and linebacker - so he is extremely versatile. He has a nose for the ball and a tendency to make big plays. If Utah is lacking depth in either the safeties or linebackers due to injury, Blechen can flex back-and-forth and help. Utah has plenty of play makers on defense, Blechen just may be the glue that can hold it all together.

3.  What will have to happen for Utah to finish in the top half of the P12 South in 2014?

Utah will have to stay healthy, especially at QB, plain and simple. When Utah was healthy last season, they started 4-2 with a win over #5 Stanford and the offense was playing very well. When injuries started to pile up, especially the injuries to Travis Wilson, the offense came to a screeching halt and Utah finished the season 1-5. Utah has proven that they can compete, in order to win Utah has to be healthy.

The best WR in the P12 is Dres Anderson because ...

... he’s blazing fast, and has a ton of experience. Taylor Stubblefield, new wide receiver coach, is improving Dres’ route running and consistency catching the ball. As great as Dres was last season, he had terrible drops, many leading directly to interceptions. So as good as Dres was last season, expect him to be significantly better this season.  And now with Kenneth Scott back, incoming JC transfer Kaelin Clay, and additional depth coming in, Dres will not see as many double teams in 2014.

Predicting 2014:  The Utah Utes

Utah is a tricky team to pick in 2014.  On one hand, there are a great many question marks ranging from the impact that key young players and JC transfers will have to the overall health status of critical contributors like Travis Wilson, Blechen, and Kenneth Scott.  On the flip side, if one were to pick a "bounce-back" team, Utah has many of the attributes that you'd look for.  They have size.  They have depth in the trenches.  They have a Head Coach who has been there / done that.  They have a Husky for an offensive coordinator.

Looking at their schedule, the picture comes into focus a little bit more.  Unlike last season when the Utes didn't even leave the state of Utah until October 19th, the Utes have a true bugger of a schedule in 2014.  Their OOC features a home game against a rugged Fresno State team and an away game at the Big House in Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines.  Once they wrap that baby up, they get the pleasure of a four-game home Pac 12 schedule versus five on the road.  In two of those home games -  vs USC and vs Oregon - they will be clear and, possibly, double digit 'dogs.  Their misses this year are UW and Cal which means that they'll be on the road against Stanford and OSU in addition to UCLA and ASU.  Brutal.

Even with a healthy Travis Wilson and breakouts from players like Clay, Anderson, Potasi and Fanaika, navigating that schedule is going to be difficult.  If you presume that the Utes don't make it out of Michigan with a win and that, at best, they'll log home wins versus WSU and Arizona, then their road to bowl eligibility means that two if not three wins on the road are required.  I'm not sure that even the national title contending UCLA can find three Pac 12 road wins in 2014.

In the end, this feels like another down year in the standings for Utah no matter how much more fight they show on the field ... and I expect them to take a lot of swings.  I like the makeup of this team, its overall toughness and its emphasis on the line of scrimmage.  However, there are still too many missing pieces at the skill positions to reliably win out every week and, let's face it, injuries will happen.  Regrettably, I expect the Utes will miss out on bowl eligibility and the fan base will be tempted to oust the coaching staff just as the black clouds hanging over the program begin to part.

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