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The Gekko File: P12 South #5 - Utah

Utah's prospects for 2013 have the Gekko seeing red.


Look up the word "boring" in the dictionary and you are bound to see a picture of Kyle Whittingham. Despite being one of, as I believe, the best coaches in the nation since his arrival at Utah, Kyle has failed to capture the flair that his predecessor, Urban Meyer, frequently demonstrated in his years at the helm. Of course, it really shouldn't be that surprising. Whittingham is, after all, a defensive guy - an increasing rarity in this day and age of offensive wizard head coaches. He is also the kind of guy who prefers that the best players on his teams get featured on the interior of lines or in the offensive backfield or in the middle of the back seven. There is nothing sexy about having your best players in lunch pail positions. "Not sexy" does NOT mean "not good". Boring can be beautiful, especially when it is wearing red and has a big U plastered upside its head.

Gekko File Accountability - what I said in 2012:

"I really struggled with this pick. When I look at the Utes, I see a team with an exceptional head coach, with a stellar D and with size on the offensive line. I also see a team that is now a very veteran unit and one that happens to play the easiest Pac 12 schedule that money can buy. But I also see a team that is relatively weak at QB (sorry, guys, I don't see any reason to think that even a healthy Jordan Wynn is any better than the #10 QB in the conference) and one that is taking a huge risk on a 25 year old offensive coordinator (which just seems just bat-shit crazy...I was 25 once upon a time)."

The Gekko went on to predict that the Utes would finish second in the P12 South ... a prediction that looks not too good in hind sight.

2012 Recap

The Gekko File had good reason to expect the Utes to finish a strong second in the South last season. After all, the team featured a possible #1 pick in Star Lotuleilei, they were getting back their steady leader QB Jordan Wynn, they had an up and coming TB in John White IV and they had pretty solid players all around the D with guys like Joe Kruger and Brian Blechen as entrenched starters. In addition, they were missing both Oregon AND Stanford for the second straight year - a scheduling quick that only an SEC fan can fully appreciate. The table was set. All the Utes had to do was eat.

It didn't quite work out that way.

From the first snap of the first game, things looked amiss for Utah. Brian Johnson, the 25 year old whiz kid who Whit hired to be his Offensive Coordinator (a hire that immediately put Whit back into "pedestrian" category among college head football coaches) was clearly in over his head. While the Utah offense scored 34 points in their first win against Northern Colorado, it wasn't an efficient effort. In fact, Utah relied on 3 fourth down conversions to keep the offense going throughout. In the second week, Utah got flat out beat by a better Utah State team and, in the process, lost Jordan Wynn for the remainder of his career. The wheels didn't completely fall off the bus. The Utes did, after all, manage to beat their rival BYU in a game that featured little Utah offense. However, they opened up their P12 schedule with four straight losses and managed victories only over WSU, Cal and Colorado on their way to a 3-6 P12 record and a fifth place finish in the South.

Surely, the lack of offense after Wynn went down was a key contributor to the Utes struggles. As the UW learned, 26 points a game is not enough to be consistently competitive in the P12. That said, the weakness of that vaunted defense was even more confounding - especially given the fact that both Oregon and Stanford were not faced. The Utes finished just 7th in the P12 in scoring D and 10th in third down conversions. They also managed just 8 interceptions all season. Only Colorado, with three, was worse last year.

The offseason kicked off with the demotion of Brian Johnson to "co-coordinator", the graduation/moving on of guys like Star, Wynn, White, LT Sam Brenner and Kruger and the surprise hiring of Dennis Erickson to come in and remake the offense. Whit hinted to fans that Utah still had some ground to make up in terms of catching up to the Pac 12 level of competition and the generally optimistic fan base in Salt Lake City found themselves both dismayed and divided.

2012 Rewind: Utah @ UW

The most stinging moment of Utah's inaugural season in the Pac 12 may have been their unthinkable loss to Colorado. However, if you could get a Ute to look you in the eye and speak truth, he may tell you that, in fact, the drubbing of their team at the hands of UW on their own field in their first ever home Pac 12 game may have been the true downer moment of the season. With that in mind, most Utes were hungry for the opportunity to return the favor in Seattle.

The game started off well enough with both teams trading blows. Utah struck first when John White broke free at midfield and scored on a 46 yard TD run that was followed by a Jake Murphy two point conversion. That would be pretty much most of the offense that Utah would see for the rest of the game as the UW Defense exerted itself and the Husky offense, heretofore undetectable, finally exploded.

Keith Price led the barrage by picking his spots and hitting on 72% of his attempts. He finished the game with two TD passes and a rushing TD - amazingly, his first rushing TD of the entire season. Bishop Sankey was a huge factor that Utah could not account for, despite sporting the second best rushing D in the conference. Sankey ran for nearly 170 yards and scored the final two TDs that put the game far out of reach. But, in the end, it was the Husky Defense that won the day. Most impressively, the Husky D only surrendered 1 of 13 third down conversions attempts and forced two turnovers on a day that saw the Huskies clinch bowl eligibility by a final score of 34-15.

2013 Preview

How quickly the prospects for a team can turn. A year ago, Utah was walking tall and looked to be a sure contender for P12 South title. This year, the world looks very different to Kyle Whittingham and the Utah faithful. Coach Whit is a defensive guy and his philosophy for success always begins with putting the hurt on opposing offense through a combination of scheme, size and grit. Always a "front to back" thinker, Whit has made it a point to concentrate on the defensive trenches in designing his schemes. However, this season, he has to start building that unit without the services of both Star Lotuleilei and Joe Kruger. On the inside, much of the reconstruction will be centered around turning former JC transfer Tenny Palepoi into a full-time space eater. As he only started one game, he'll need help. That may come in the form of RS Fr Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (6-1, 320) who, by all reports, was the surprise of the spring. At the end spot, JR Nate Orchard gives the Utes an honorable mention All-Pac12 quality player to lean on. Working backwards, key contributors include Trevor Reilly as a LB/pass rush specialist and Brian Blechen, who is likely to move from S to LB in an attempt to emulate some of the success that Washington had last season in similar player movements. The Utes will also be counting on incoming JC transfer Tevin Carter to give them a boost and on S turned CB Kevin McGill to give them a big body on the edge that can shut down top receivers in the South like Marqise Lee and Shaq Evans.

Offensively, the arrival of Dennis Erickson means the complete reconstruction of the playbook. The Utes have a few pieces to work with. The offensive line features an All-Conference talent in LT Jeremiah Poutasi and the enormous DT turned OG Junior Salt. Travis Wilson, the 6-6, 240 QB with a penchant for running and getting his head taken off, is the clear leader in the race for the starting QB position. Wilson had his ups and downs as a freshman starter towards the end of last season, but he definitely shows a level of athleticism that the Utes are hopeful can be more heavily utilized in an Erickson offense. Replacing John White will not be easy, but the risk there is mitigated by the presence of last year's back up, Kelvin York and, well, the fact that Erickson isn't really a run-first kind of play caller any more. The fall arrival of another JC transfer - Devontae Booker - has some Utes fans intrigued. Finally, the passing game will be looking for pass catchers to emerge. One good bet is TE Jake Murphy who has quietly become one of the better TEs in the conference. If Utah can work him more into the offense, they could do more damage than one would expect.

Utah Dots

  • Star Lotuleilei, despite scares about a possible heart condition revealed during the NFL Training Combine, still was a first round pick, but fell to 14 and the Carolina Panthers. The only other Ute drafted was Joe Kruger in the 6th Round by Chip Kelly and his Philadelphia Eagles
  • Despite having only two players drafted, Utah only returns 12 starters from last year. Counting kickers, this is the lowest number in the P12. Incidentally, UW returns the most in the P12 with 20
  • 2012 was the first season that Kyle Whittingham failed to qualify for a post-season game. Whit has an all-time record of 7-1 in bowls including two wins in his only BCS appearances
  • Dres Anderson was the Utes top receiver of last season having caught 36 balls for 365 yards and 3 TDs. In fact, the Utes WRs caught just 136 receptions all year. Compare and contrast that to Marqise Lee who caught 118 balls all by himself
  • The Utes play BYU in the continuation of the Holy War series that has endured since 1922. However, after this game, the Holy War will be interrupted for two years in order to make scheduling a little easier for both teams. If only the warring tribes in the Middle East could be so smart
  • Construction fever has hit Salt Lake City. The Utes expect to open a huge new 149,000 sq. ft. practice center - price tag of $32 M - by the beginning of the Fall. Thank you, Larry Scott

2013 Predictions: Utah

Nothing about the 2013 season feels good to me with respect to Utah. It started with Kyle Whittingham's comments that the road to competitiveness in the Pac 12 may be bumpier than fans expected. It continued with some offseason hijinks that led to the dismissal of a couple of players who were accused of physical assaults. It kept going with the awkward hiring of Dennis Erickson - a man who could, at any moment, start stabbing backs of current coaches in hopes of taking over altogether in the event that Kyle Whittingham doesn't survive next season. 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. In fact, this year will mark the first time that Utah plays either of Stanford or Oregon as a member of the Pac 12 (they play both).

On the flips side, the Utes have a few things going for them. First, they have big bodies on both sides of the ball and, unlike Colorado, the cabinets are not bare. Secondly, Dennis Erickson, for better or for worse, is a much more qualified OC than either Norm Chow or Brian Johnson were. Thirdly, Travis Wilson appears to be a capable QB who is capable of making a few plays. Fourthly, the schedule does provide for a few breaks despite five conference games being played on the road. In particular, the Utes will only have traveled away from SLC one time before October 19th, their seventh game of the season. Also, missing UW - given the blowouts of the last two years - is a good thing, though missing Cal may be regrettable.

In the end, those positives can't overcome all of the pressures facing the program. Utah may be lucky to find three conference wins and to equal last year's in-conference record.