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the Gekko Files: Previewing the 2015 Utah Utes

It's 2015 which means it's time for Utah to name another new offensive coordinator! Find out about that and more in today's Gekko File on the Utah Utes.

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For Husky fans, Utah football doesn't yet seem like a "thing". After all, we've only encountered the Utes twice and we've managed to maintain our all-time undefeated streak in the process. It's almost been too easy.

Don't tell that to the rest of the Pac 12. From their vantage point, the Utes have made the transition into the power 5 in about as seamless a manner as one could hope to see. They've won big out of conference games, pulled off in-conference upsets, competed for P12 South titles and produced some hig level NFL talent. They are coming off a 9-4 season, their best since joining the Pac. With the resignation of Mike Riley in Corvallis, the Utes now boast the longest tenured coach in the conference. There is something going on in Salt Lake.

But is it enough? The Utes are still looking for that breakout season. Could 2015 be the year? Sounds like a job for the Gekko.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 5th
Actual Div Finish 5th
Predicted P12 Record 4-5
Actual P12 Record 5-4

Here were some of my verbatims:

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...

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....

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. Regrettably, I expect the Utes will miss out on bowl eligibility.

Utah's 2014 went much as the Gekko had predicted last summer. The defensive output was stellar and kept the Utes in just about every game that they played. In fact, one could argue that it flat out won them some of the bigger victories that they had such as their dominating win in Ann Arbor and theair gutsy 2OT victory over Stanford.

For every advantage that the Defense provided, Utah's Offense seemed to give one back ... and then some. They struggled with injuries to critical players. They had controversy at QB. They took too long to unleash their Heisman candidate RB. They had this:

It all netted out to an unsatisfyingly successful 9 win season for Coach Whittingham and his Utes.  There were great successes with their dominating Las Vegas Bowl Win over Colorado St, their win in Ann Arbor and their upsets of both Stanford and USC.  But a 5th place finish despite a 5-4 conference record which included a loss to WSU wasn't what the fanbase had hoped for.

What became really interesting were the offseason fireworks that led to Utah losing its best recruiter and it's two coordinators. Abattle of wills that erupted between the AD and the head coach only added to the drama that marked the end of the 2014 campaign.

Previewing 2015: The Utah Utes

The Offense

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Aaron Roderick
Jim Harding
RB Play QB Efficiency
WR Experience
RB Devontae Booker
WR Kenneth Scott
OL Siaosi Aiono
WR Deniko Carter (JC)

Kenneth Scott is the key to unlocking the Utah offense. Is he ready?.

Utah fans would rather not discuss this, but the most interesting subplot surrounding this offense is the revolving door that has become the offensive coordinator position. From Norm Chow to former Ute QB Brian Johnson to Pac 12 old timer Dennis Erickson to UW alum Dave Christensen and now to a combo of Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding, the Utes have had a new man (men?) running the show each of the past five years. Each have implemented vastly different play books but each leading to similar, dismal results. It is hard to know exactly what the latest co-coordinator situation will do for a unit that finished last in the Pac 12 in total offense.

One sure bet is a steady diet of Devontae Booker. Despite not starting to bing the season, Booker came on strong in Pac 12 play to the tune of 1500 yards and 10 TDs. Husky fans will see a lot of similarities to to Bishop Sankey. Not the biggest guy on the field, Booker shows good vision, great burst to the hole and that mythical ability to get better as the game goes on. He's a true workhorse who can make yards when the whole world knows that he is getting the ball and who has the the toughness to stay on the field. Utah fans think he is the best RB in the PAC. I don't know about that, but he may be the most important one. Utah doesn't have much in terms of experience or accomplishment waiting in the wings, though incoming JC transfer Joseph Williams is an intriguing prospect.

Utah's offensive line is a work in progress but projects as a strength. It is built around big, mean men like senior C Siaosi Aiono and junior G/T Isaac Asiata. The big mystery is who will replace Jeremiah Poutasi at LT. If JJ Dielman can seize that role, the Utes line could quickly rise to top of conference levels. Given the other challenges present, it has to if the Utes will have any chance of putting up points in the PAC.

The passing game will be the Utes Achilles heel in 2015. The QB controversy between gunslinger Travis Wilson and scatter bug Kendal Thompson, both seniors, will continue into the regular season. The fact that Wilson can't beat out an injured Thompson tells you just about all that you need to know about the staff's confidence in their veteran. Or, it may be just signal a lack of faith in Utah's young receiving corps. The Utes will struggle to replace both Kaelin Clay and Dres Anderson. The good news is that Kenneth Scott is back. In addition, the Utes are bullish on the upsides of sophomores Kenric Young and Jameson Field. If you are looking for a breakout candidate, keep your eyes on the Utes' spring sensation: 6'3" redshirt Raelon Singleton. For the Utes to have a chance in the passing game, just about all of these pieces are going to need to come together.

The Defense

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
John Pease Pass Rush
Rush Defense
Back-end Speed
CB Experience
DL Hunter Dimick
DL Lowell Lotuleilei
LB Jared Norris
DL Kylie Fitts (RS)
DE Wallace Gonzales (RS)

Is Utah senior Hunter Dimick ready to emerge as the PAC 12's best 3T lineman? Maybe so..

Let's not mince words here: Utah projects as one of the top two or three best defenses in the PAC 12. If they reach their potential, this unit could be "Stanford good". Loaded with upperclassmen and stout on the defensive line, the Utes have the tools to be one of the better defenses in the nation, despite the defection of DC Kalani Sitake to Oregon State and players like Nate Orchard and Eric Rowe to the NFL.

It starts with the Utah front seven. This group is very much molded in the image of their head coach: tough as nails and assignment sound. The Utes rely on their big ends to create pressure and stop the run so that their second level can roam and make plays. With talented players like DE Hunter Dimick, LB/DE Jason Faniaka, sophomore DL Lowell Lotuleiei, LB Gionni Paul, and LB Jared Norris, Utah again has the component parts to make this strategy work. In fact, Dimick is, in my mind, ready to ascend into the elite of Pac 12 lineman while UCLA transfer Kylie Fitts looks like yet another young stud perfectly groomed to succeed.  There may be a bit more youth on the d-line than what new DC John Pease would prefer, but this is a strong front seven overall.

I'd be lying if I told you that the Utah secondary projects just as strongly. There is a bunch of refurbishment going on with a number of players like S Jason Thompson (QB) and CB Dominique Hatfield (WR) all going through position switches to build up depth. But don't sleep on these guys. This is a long and physical unit that could make some plays, particularly in run support. Depth and experience at safety is an area of particular concern and one that leads me to believe that Utah might be prone to giving up the occasional explosive play.  But this is a group that is constructed to counteract all of the zone-read teams on the schedule and one that should complement the front seven adequately enough.

Summed up, you have to like what you see in Utah's overall defense. They are where UW would like to be by next year and are, by themselves, good enough to deliver five or six wins for the Utes.

Three Questions and a Comment: HuskyAndUte, Editor,  Block U

1. That was quite the offseason standoff between Coach Whittingham and the administration. What was the story there and how has it been resolved?

The offseason was certainly wild for Utah fans and not in a good way. I do think the whole situation was a bit overblown by the local media, but coach Whittingham and Dr. Hill certainly aren't friends. Basically what happened was that coaches like defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake had reached the end of their contracts because they were not given extensions during Utah's back-to-back 5-7 seasons in 2012 and 2013. There was a bit of a rift between Dr. Hill and Whittingham about how much to pay Sitake and Tuiaki for their new contracts, which ultimately resulted in both talented coaches leaving for Oregon State. I think Whitingham and Hill are not the best of friends, but I think things are okay. Hill did try to keep Sitake, offering approximately $800K per season, and Whittingam was able to bring in competent coaches to replace those who left. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen was not a fit with many of the players, so I think he may have been advised to leave.

2. The Utes offense has struggled since joining the Pac 12. Not coincidentally, there has been a revolving door of offensive coordinators. Chicken or egg question here: Has the offense struggled due to the coordinator situation or is the coordinator situation a result of poor offensive results?

I think that the changes in offensive coordinator have resulted in Utah's offensive woes. Quarterback injuries also hurt Utah in 2011, 2012, and 2013, which certainly did not help the offense. The reason I think all the changes at OC is more of the problem is because the scheme and terminology has changed with each new OC (though Utah's current OCs will keep the same terminology this season). Utah ran a pro-style offense under Norm Chow in 2011. In 2012 with Brian Johnson, they kind of ran a mix of pro-style power running with some spread concepts as well. Dennis Erickson moved the offense to a true spread offense in 2013. Dave Christensen also ran a spread offense in 2014, but the terminology and concepts were different. Having a different scheme means that players recruited to one scheme may not fit the new scheme, and it also makes it hard to recruit talented offensive players if they do not know what scheme they will be playing in each year (or who their OC will be). I think stability at the OC position would result in an improved Utah offense.

3. A lot of Utes fans are very bullish on the propsects of their defense despite the losses of key guys like Nate Orchard and Eric Rowe. What is cooking in 2015 with that Utes D?

There is no question Utah lost great players in Orchard and Rowe, but fans are still excited. Utah has UCLA transfer and blue-chip recruit Kylie Fitts ready to step in at defensive end. Hunter Dimick was a player who got overlooked a bit last year. He quietly accumulated 10 sacks playing opposite Orchard. Lowell Lotulelei will also be a year older after having a good true freshman season at defensive tackle. None of Utah's defensive linemen have the quickness of Orchard, but the defensive line as a whole looked stout in spring football. Utah also was without projected starting cornerback Reggie Porter last season due to a season ending injury in fall camp. Rowe is a big loss, but Porter looked great before he got injured and looked healthy in spring. Hatfield also looked great last season after switching from wide receiver to cornerback during fall camp. WIth an entire offseason under his belt on defense, fans expect him to have a big year. Utah fans also got to see flashes of the potential of linebacker Gionni Paul (who led the team in interceptions despite only playing in 8 games) and safety Tevin Carter. Both players were never completely healthy in 2014 and each missed significant time. Carter had two interceptions in four games (including a pick 6) and has the size and speed to be an elite safety in the Pac-12. Paul transferred to Utah from Miami. He was slowed by a foot injury (he broke his foot in spring football before the 2014 season) all season, but he still showed a big playmaking ability. With seven starters back and players like Carter, Fitts, Paul, and Porter healthy and available as well as some of the young guys getting a year older and stronger, the Utah defense looks like it could be better in 2015 than it was in 2014, a year where they finished second in the Pac-12 in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.

The one team that Utah fans have circled on the 2015 schedule is ...

...without question, Arizona State. Utah has not beaten the Sun Devils since 1976 when both teams were in the WAC. Utah has come ever so close to taking down the Sun Devils the last two seasons, falling 20-19 at home in 2013 and falling 19-16 in OT in Tempe in 2014. Utah finally was able to take down USC last season, so ASU is the only Pac-12 South team Utah has yet to beat since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. ASU fans have not always been the kindest to Utah fans either. Given the close losses the last two years and the fact that Utah has a history with ASU in the WAC, Utah fans really want to knock off ASU more than any other school this season.

Predicting 2015: The Utes

I'm having a hard time getting a handle on the Utes as I try to slot them for the upcoming season. On one hand, the turnover of two coordinators, the drafting of two key guys in the early rounds of the draft and the odd lack of commitment to long-time QB Travis Wilson all scream "red flag". On the other hand, the seemingly solid statuses of both the defensive front seven and the offensive lines are the kind of building blocks that you like to see in teams that can't always recruit the 5-star studs.  The fact that Utah has more seniors on their roster than UW has juniors and seniors combined also is a good sign.  Oh, what to do?

I know, let's look at their schedule.

Utah's schedule is tough when you consider the out of conference pieces, but not too bad when you look specifically at the conference segment. They have Michigan and Utah State at home with Fresno State on the road before they get into Pac 12 play. Once they do, they have a nice mix of home and road games with their toughest opponents relatively well-spaced. Their misses are Stanford and WSU and this is a five home game season. If there were a complaint, it would be that their BYE comes after their first PAC game ... @ Oregon. But playing seven or eight in a row is kind of the norm in the PAC this year.

I'm going to squirrel my way out of this and defer on a specific win prediction until I sit down and do my annual game-by-game prediction piece.  They ultimately could be contenders in the South, but I'm having trouble seeing it. Pac 12 offenses are too good to be shut down altogether and the Utah offense looks like it may be one of the two or three least productive in the conference when it is all said and done. Netted together, I could see Utah winning as few as three or as many as five conference games.  Probably good enough for a bowl game, but maybe not good enough for Kyle Whittingham to avoid the hot seat in 2016.