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the Gekko Files: Previewing Utah Football for 2016

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A nasty offensive line, a familiar face, and the dean of Pac-12 coaches are what Utah brings to the table.

Kyle Whittingham has his Utes racing up the standings in the PAC 12 South.
Kyle Whittingham has his Utes racing up the standings in the PAC 12 South.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The great Vinny Gambini famously started off a stream of consciousness with the phrase, "Is it possible that the two utes ..."

Unfortunately for us and, really, for all of mankind, Vinny was not able to complete his momentuous thought. In fact, he was rudely interrupted in that scene thus representing the greatest failure in screenwriting since Roadhouse (or Ishtar, for that matter).

Fortunately for you, I happen to know a lot about streams of consciousness and just a little bit about Utes...the Utah variety.

In today's article, we open the Gekko Files on the Utah Utes.

Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have found a respectable if not impressive amount of success. In 2011 - their first in the PAC, Utah came within an upset loss to Colorado of going to the PAC 12 championship.  Last season, it was a 2OT thriller against Arizona that cost them a similar trip. As it was, the Utes finished with the best overall record in the South at 10-3, beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, and put four players - P Tom Hackett, DT Lowell Lotuleilei, LB Gionni Paul and S Marcus Wilson - on the All-Pac-12 first team.

2016 is another new year for the Utes and the PAC's longest-tenured coach in Kyle Whittingham. Gone are 11 starters from the 10-win roster including four-year starter QB Travis Wilson, back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Devontae Booker, Las Vegas Bowl MVP S Tevin Carter, Paul, star LB Jared Norris, and breakout wide receiver Britain Covey. The additions include a former Husky QB, a brand new receiving corps, a new linebacker rotation, and a new offensive playbook that is going back to the future.

Time to strap 'em up. The Gekko is on the loose.

Utah's Offense:

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Aaron Roderick Offensive Line Play
Big Receiving Corps
QB Uncertainty
Lack of Playmaking
OT JJ Dielman
RB Joe Williams
QB Troy Williams (JC)
WR Tim Patrick (Inj)

Former Husky QB Troy Williams has a leg up in the competition for the Utah starting QB job.

I realize that most of our readers, at least those of you that call the UWDP your home site, are anxious to get into the Utah QB situation. It is almost always about the QB. Almost.

In the case of the Utah Utes, however, I'd argue differently. When your offensive line returns 90 starts from a unit that has been top five in the Pac-12 in both rushing offense and sacks allowed in each of the past two years, it is a decent bet that this is a strength to build upon.

All five of Utah's projected starters on the line this year are seniors and juniors, exactly as Whittingham likes it. The headliners are senior OT JJ Dielman and senior OG man-child Isaac Asiata. Both are All-Conference types of players with Dielman looking like the kind of guy who could break into the national conversation. These two studs have 56 starts between the two of them alone.

The Utes are really going to need everything that the line can give them given all other moving parts revolving around the program. Playmaking is going to be at a premium for Utah in 2016. The receiving corps will have to replace leaders Kenneth Scott (graduation), Bubba Poole (graduation), and Britain Covey (mission) while the running back unit will have to cope with the graduation of star Devontae Booker.

Fair warning here: don't be fooled by the turnover of "star" names. Utah has done an excellent job of balancing their roster with "lunchpail" types of talents who are very much of the upperclassman variety. The RB tandem of senior Joe Williams and junior Troy McCormick are an experienced group. Williams is a compactly built and durable workhorse type of back. He won't wow you with his burst or his wiggle, but he'll keep grinding at it all day long.

The receiving corps boasts similar experience. The leaders are senior TE Harrison Handley (21 catches, 4 TDs), sophomore Tyrone Smith (18 catches), and sophomore Raelon Singleton (6 catches). In addition to that experience, this fall Utah expects the return of the injured senior Tim Patrick, a star-in-the-making. What really stands out about this receiving unit is the size overall. Handley, Patrick, Smith, Singleton, sophomore WR Caleb Repp, and senior TE Siale Fakailoatonga are each between 6'3" and 6'5". To top it off, former Ute DB Cory Butler-Bird is projecting as the starting slot receiver to replace Covey's big play potential. If the Utes' QB can distribute the ball, this receiving corps has the potential to really shine in a steady, move-the-chains type of way.

Ah, about that QB. Some of you may have heard that former UW second-stringer Troy Williams has resurfaced in the PAC. In fact, Williams has not only resurfaced but is widely considered to be the favorite to take over as the starter for Utah in what will be his junior season. The 6'2" playcaller is more of a passer than a runner, but he has the requisite athleticism to move the pocket and keep plays alive in a crumbling pocket. His competition, 6'5" junior Brandan Cox, is more of the big-armed, immobile type of passer. Neither is perfect and, until proven otherwise, we should view the QB as a weak link situation for Utah. That said, there is potential...particularly with Williams. We all saw it when he was here: the big arm, the quick feet, the competitiveness. If he can keep his emotions in check and develop a sense of patience in the pocket - two factors that troubled him as a young QB - he could emerge as a top-half-of-the-PAC passer in 2016.

It remains to be seen how this unit comes together under OC Aaron Roderick. The Utes will try to emphasize the strength of their line and size of their receivers by featuring more of a pro-style attack this season.  That means more snaps under center and more west coast-style routes - think quick slants and five yard hooks - for this team to adjust to. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Utah's Defense:

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Morgan Scalley DL Play
Pass Rush
Turnover Generation
LB Experience
DL Hunter Dimick
DL Kylie Fitts
DT Lowell Lotuleilei
DL/LB Chris Hart (RFr)

All-Pac-12 first-teamer Lowell Lotuleilei is the anchor for the gritty Utah defensive line.

Washington fans are understandably excited about the potential of their defense to not only be one of the best in the PAC, but also in the nation. Utah fans have exactly the same expectation. And deservedly so.

It is very difficult to objectively assess this Utah defense and find a clear weakness. In 2015, Utah was dominating in pass rush, rush defense and turnover margin. The Utes in 2016 will boast one of the deepest and strongest defensive lines in the entire nation. Their secondary returns four starters. Even the linebacking corps, which lost two studs in Gionni Paul and Jared Norris, can brag about the fact that most of incoming depth is of the upperclassmen variety. There really aren't any good reasons to expect anything other than Utah asserting itself as one of the two or three scariest units in the PAC.

Utah, like most Pac-12 defenses, is a hybrid style that makes use of rush ends (called "Stud LB" in their parlance) and a lot of Nickel packages. Frankly, with their defensive line, they could play just about any style they want and it wouldn't matter. From left to right, here is Utah's line: senior DE Kylie Fitts, athletic junior DT Filipo Mokofisi, star junior DT Lowell Lotulelei, and stud senior DE Hunter Dimick. That, my friends, is an embarrassment of riches.

Many will recognize the name Lotulelei.  The junior has started from day 1 in the program and has evolved into a Danny Shelton-style gap stopper. He's athletic and strong, but plays a position that will never earn him attention as a DPOY candidate. Dimick, on the other hand, does. Despite battling injuries most of last year, he still finished with 7 TFLs and 3 sacks. His partner on the other side, Kylie Fitts, is a star in his own right. He had 7 sacks a year ago to go along with leading the PAC in forced fumbles. This motley crew will be adding in a new member with the arrival of redshirt freshman rush specialist Chris Hart. Together, these guys make up the gold standard of D-lines in the PAC.

The secondary, while not as accomplished, will also be a strength. They return four starters to a unit that struggled at times a year ago, but has upside. While they lack overall team speed in the back, the unit overall has good size and many years of experience. The leader of the unit is 1st team All-PAC S Marcus Wilson. Senior nickelback Justin Thomas is the best cover guy in the corps. Senior CB Brian Allen, at 6'3" and 205 lbs, is an interesting prospect. There are raw materials here to work with and, as long as that DL can generate its own pressure, they should be just fine.

The weak link, and I say that with all due respect to the notion of relative evaluation, might be the linebacking corps. That is a hard statement to digest given just how strong a unit it was a year ago. But it is hard to digest the loss of talents like Paul and Norris, not to mention the coach's son in Jason Whittingham. For Utah, the key has always been to develop depth of roster through redshirting and special teams. This philosophy has held true for the linebacking corps and it is now time for guys like junior MLB Sunia Tauteoli, sophomore OLB Cody Barton and senior OLB Sharrieff Shah Jr. I don't have a great feel for any one of these guys. On paper they appear to lack size, which might be a concern. However, Whittingham has a strong track record here.

One Breakout Star

Chris Hart, LB/DE

I hesitated a little bit here. In all honesty, my first instinct was to put P Mitch Wishnowsky here. Given the fact that Kyle Whittingham generally prefers to play upperclassmen, it is difficult to project Hart as a true breakout star. The potential for this young hybrid player, however, is undeniable.

The gem of Utah's 2015 recruiting class, the Florida product is just the kind of pass rush terror that Utah really needs to see emerge in 2016. In many ways, Hart's game mirrors that of former UW rush end Travis Feeney. He's long and devilishly fast. In Utah's scheme, he will be rotated in and out liberally - enough to both impact the game and to keep him fresh through the fourth quarter.  While I'm sure that Sculley and Whit will be cautious in how they bring him into the rotation, I could still seem him racking up 7 to 9 sacks over the course of the year and get into the discussion for Freshman of the Year.

Predicting 2016

Obviously, I expect Utah's defense to be one of the best in the PAC. In addition, I think that their special teams, as it always is, will be a weapon. The big question - and it is a big one - is how the offense comes together with a whole new passing game. Still, the pieces are there with an excellent offensive line, a huge set of receivers, and able bodies at RB. If Troy Williams can emerge as even a middle-of-the-PAC option at QB, Utah's offense will do enough to allow the defense to win them many games.

The schedule plays out fairly well for the Utes. Though this is a five road-game year in the PAC, their OOC schedule is pretty straightforward and their BYE week comes in late October. Their PAC opener comes at home against a USC team also breaking in a new QB. If they can get by that, they get a manageable run of Cal, Arizona, and Oregon State. By the time they travel to UCLA mid-season for what is sure to be a very relevant divisional showdown, Utah could very well be 7-0.

My expectation is that Utah is going to be in the South division race until the very end. I think they are deeper than USC and better coached than UCLA. While I'm not yet ready to call them the likely South representative in the Pac-12 championship, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see them get there. This is a team that nobody wants to play and one that I think will do some damage before it is all said and done.