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the Gekko Files: previewing Utah Utes football in 2017

There are good slopes in Utah, right?

Arizona v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Utah is good for many things. Great hiking. Stellar mountain biking. Unbelievable natural terrain. Interesting microbrews. And, of course, skiing.

I like skiing. Always have. To engage in such an athletic endeavor hosted within an alpine setting has always produced a natural high for me. Literally.

The thing about skiing, however, is the lingering danger. Mountains are not inherently safe places. Trails that dead end in inescapable spots, trees just daring you to hit them head on and, of course, the risk of avalanche for those who venture into the most adventurous terrain. The existence of trail maps, ski lifts and modern alpine equipment helps to mitigate these risks and are luxuries to be sure. But they can also serve to give us a false sense of security while numbing our senses to the danger that lurks all around.

The adventurer who loses that sense of respect can easily get out over the tips of skis and find himself in a world of hurt.

Still, pushing yourself through that danger is part of the thrill. Taking what skills and assets you have and pushing past what ought to be your inherent natural limit is what makes the adventure so intoxicating.

Fans of the Utah Utes know this all too well. Since joining the PAC, national observers have generally posted nothing more than polite prognostications for the Utes. “A solid Kyle Whittingham team that simply lacks the ...” is a phrase that seems to pop up every year. Yet all the Utes have done since joining the PAC is rack up 46 total wins... more than teams like Cal, WSU, ASU, and Arizona. Just one less than UCLA over that same period of time. In fact, there isn’t a single team in the conference that Utah hasn’t beaten. Not one.

And yet, there is only one team in the South division that has yet to make an appearance in the PAC 12 championship game since its inception. In one of the most competitive divisions in all of college football, the Utah Utes have yet to emerge as division champs.

Are the Utes simply overmatched? Are they out over the tips of their collective red and white skis? Or is this simply the case the time not yet having arrived for one of the most well-coached and fundamentally stable programs in the entire country?

Let’s open the Gekko Files and find out.

Utah’s Offense

Utah Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
WR size OL inexperience QB Troy Williams QB Cooper Bateman (Txfr)
QB depth team speed WR Raelon Singleton RB TJ Green (TFr)
new system RB Armand Shyne

You know the old adage. “If you have more than one QB, you don’t have one QB.” There may not be another team in the PAC who wears this moniker as neatly as the Utes.

The incumbent is former UW QB Troy Williams. He will be working under yet another new offensive coordinator in former EWU offensive coordinator (and the former mentor of current UW QB Jake Browning) Troy Taylor.

Foster Farms Bowl - Utah v Indiana
Siaosi Wilson isn’t backing down from the opportunity to breakout in the Utah offense.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

If it seems a bit deja vu-ish to be reading about an EWU coach in the PAC, that would be because the new Cal offensive coordinator is EWU’s former head coach in Beau Baldwin. Husky fans are all too familiar with Baldwin and his Red Eagles. They are a pass first, pass often team. And, now, so is Utah.

But can Troy Williams fit the mold? I have dubious suspicions. Williams has a strong arm and really is more of a pocket passer. But he’s never quite shown the mechanics to deliver the ball accurately - a must in a Troy Taylor offense - and he’s never put up numbers to indicate that he has the athleticism to overcome his technique challenges. Williams completed just 53% of his passes last year, second to last in the PAC just ahead of the infamous Mike Fafaul. On top of that, Williams holds the ball a long time and takes a lot of sacks. His adjusted sack rate last year was 61st in the country despite sitting behind a solid offensive line.

Fortunately, the Utes have some options. Tyler Hundley was last year’s back up and the favorite of a contingent of fans. In addition, Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman is eligible and turned heads with his spring performance. I’m honestly not convinced that Williams will open the season as Utah’s QB and, well, that’s not a good thing.

The rest of the offense is in varying states of disarray. Nowhere more so than the offensive line where the Utes will have to replace, per Bill Connelly, 50 of last year’s 65 starts including 1st round draft pick LT Garrett Bolles. In fact, Utah has just three players with game experience in total and every single one of them was dealing with various state of injury during the spring. All that said, this is a very big line that features players with some tools. Junior OT Jackson Barton at 6’7” and 315 lbs is a clear breakout candidate. Nevertheless, this is a clear hot spot for Kyle Whittingham.

The receiving corps has some things to prove. Junior Raelon Singleton - a big target at 6’3” and 215 lbs - is clearly the best returning player. He racked up 464 yards and four TDs a year ago, although three of those TDs came in one crazy game against ASU. He’s been inconsistent as a young player, but obviously has some talents to work with.

The rest of the receiving rotation will be made up of guys you’ve never heard of. Sophomore Siaosi Wilson is the other big receiver in the rotation and has shown both a wide catch radius and a willingness to play physical. Sophomore Demari Simpkins is a smaller slot guy who might be the fastest player in their receiving corps. One or both of those guys could become factors. Or not.

I didn’t really mention tight end because it’s not clear what role they will occupy in a Troy Taylor offense. One player that I’m bullish on, however, is freshman beast Bapa Falemeka. he’s a 6’3, 245 lb man-child who might start out as a blocker but who has the skills to work himself into the passing game.

The running back situation is comprised of a group of guys that I like to refer to as the “Joe Williams’ Jock Carrying Club”. Zach Moss and Armand Shyne look like twins both in stature (5’10, 205 ish) and running style. Neither has show much in the way of explosiveness or wiggle, but both seem to be generally reliable and safe with the ball. Shyne looks like he has more upside and still has a great chance to be a factor coming back from injury. Depth is a serious issue here given that both players have dealt with injuries and the backups are a couple of young burners with no experience in true freshman TJ Green and sophomore Devontae Henry-Cole.

I’m not feeling a lot of positive juice coming from this offense. Maybe Bateman will emerge and a couple of the younger receivers like Simpkins and Wilson become real factors. It feels, however, that the Utes are going to need a season or two to get molded into what Taylor wants to run. Regardless, Whitingham has a track record of squeezing lemonade out of the fruit he inherits every year. It's not fair to count him out.

Utah’s Defense

Utah Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
DL havoc secondary experience DL Lowell Lotulelei LB Marquis Blair (JUCO)
team size team speed DL Kylie Fitts S Corrian Ballard (JUCO)
LB depth S Chase Hansen CB Jaylon Johnson (TFr)

The real strength of the Utes, and the reason that they’ll contend in the South, lies with the defensive side of the ball and, in particular, a defensive line whose starters take a back seat to none in the conference.

Utah v Arizona State
Lowell Lotulelei is a bad man.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Senior DT Lowell Lotulelei is my favorite player and perhaps the most underrated “star” in the PAC. He’s such a maneater that Hall and Oates have to pay him royalties on their 1982 classic. He’ll get paired with end Kylie Fitts who missed 2016. Fitts essentially replaces Hunter Dimick in a “stud for stud” swap that, I think, will greatly stabilize the Utah line. Add in Bradlee Anae and Filipo Mokofisi and you have what is probably the most active and disrupting four man front in the league. This group is going to create their own pocket pressure leaving the Utes the luxury of not having to blitz as a means of getting to the QB.

This is good news for a Utes secondary that is going through some major transition. Safety Chase Hansen - hasn’t he been in the league like 11 years? - is the only returnee among Utah’s entire two-deep.

I really can’t tell you what is going to happen in that Utah secondary. Count on seeing a little bit of Boobie - senior safety Boobie Hobbs and a whole bunch of JUCOs and true frosh. Transfer S Corrion Ballard and true freshman CB Jaylon Johnson are my best guesses at impact players. I do expect this unit to reap the benefit of a studly defensive line, but how much of a regression there is remains to be seen.

I do like Utah’s situation at linebacker which, I think, will make running the ball against the Utes difficult. Their key contributors including Cody Barton, Sunia Tauteoli, and Kavika Luafatasaga are all juniors or seniors. In addition, senior ILB Cody Ippolito, a transfer from Arizona, adds a nice element to the squad. They may not be the fastest group, but they are big, strong and physical.

Since he is such a big part of the team, I should probably mention the punter. Super stud Mitch Wishnowsky is, indeed, back. In fact, he’s just a junior. So get used to Utah’s time tested strategy of using the kicking game to advantage its defense. He’s that good.

One Breakout Player

WR Siaosi Wilson

I really wanted to go with TE Bapa Falemaka here because a) I love the potential for a big, hybrid style TE in the new up-tempo, air-attack spread that Troy Taylor is bringing to Salt Lake and b) his name is “Bapa”.

Logic must win over emotion and, in this case, Wilson is the logical choice. At 6’2” and 190 lbs, Wilson is the other big receiver opposite Singleton in this offense. However, Wilson is faster, has better hands and doesn’t have the history of injury that Singleton has. I also love how Wilson approaches the game. He seems to relish contact and he plays with bright hot emotion.

Wilson has the chance to be the difference maker in this year’s offense no matter who Utah puts in at QB. I think a 750 yard season with six scores should be viewed as the standard. A few highlight reel moments as a blocker should also be expected.

Projecting Utah

I have to admit that I don’t love Utah as much as I did a year ago. The offensive line situation is a tough one to come to grips with and the learning curve for the QBs in Troy Taylor’s new offense is sure to not go as smoothly as Ute fans might hope.

Still, I like the Utah defense even if their secondary is pretty much all new. A defensive line as active and havoc creating as the one that they have is a great asset to lean on when rebuilding your D.

When you net all the pieces out, you get what looks like a typical Kyle Whittingham team. And, you know what? Kyle Whittingham seems to just find a way to get it done every year. So, should we expect this year to be different?

When in doubt, consult with the schedule. I will say that the schedule is more difficult than in year’s past. Mostly that is because their two misses this year are the North’s two weakest teams in Oregon State and Cal. Otherwise, the schedule is manageable. Five home conference games with their tougher opponents mixed relatively well with their more favorable ones. The one exception to that is the back-to-back of Stanford and @ USC in early October.

I think Utah is a four or five conference win team which should make them bowl eligible. In a South division as competitive as it is, it might also make them contenders. Look for the Utes to lose a couple they shouldn’t but to also take one they probably weren’t expecting (and let’s hope it's not the road trip to Seattle). Utah fans should expect the Utes to be in the race for the South all the way into November.