Star Lotulelei, possibly the best defensive tackle in college football, returns for the Utes.
June 22, 2012
SALT LAKE CITY
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Utah's jump into the Pac-12 Conference last fall opened a new chapter in the program's history, but at the end, there were the Utes hoisting a bowl championship trophy for the 10th time in the last 13 years.
The 8-5 Utes finished strong after adjusting to the loss of starting quarterback Jordan Wynn in the fourth game. They won five of their last six games, including a stretch of four-straight league wins, and were targeted for a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game until the final week of regular season play. Utah would capture the first bowl win for the Pac-12 on Dec. 31, beating Georgia Tech.
Kyle Whittingham, entering his eighth season as Utah's head coach with a 66-25 career record and a 7-1 bowl mark, hopes to use last year's strong finish as a springboard into year two in the Pac-12. Eighteen starters return, including a healthy Wynn at quarterback, perhaps the country's best defensive player in tackle Star Lotulelei and Heisman Trophy candidate John White at running back.
Whittingham retooled his staff in the offseason, elevating 2009 Sugar Bowl MVP Brian Johnson to offensive coordinator. Johnson, at age 25 the youngest offensive coordinator in the country, will coach the quarterbacks for a third season. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake upgraded his title to assistant head coach and receivers coach Aaron Roderick was promoted to passing game coordinator. New to the staff are Dan Finn (offensive line), Ilaisa Tuiaki (fullbacks and tight ends) and Sharrieff Shah (cornerbacks). The running backs are now under the direction of Jay Hill, also Utah's special teams coordinator.
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Receiver
Questions: Offensive Tackle
Under first-year coordinator Brian Johnson, the Utes will employ a multi-faceted offense that features elements of both the spread and West Coast systems. "Brian Johnson has a feel for the game that very few coaches have," says Whittingham. "We are looking forward to the new ideas and innovation that he will bring to the offense."
Nine offensive starters return, among them quarterback Jordan Wynn, who missed the final nine games last season due to an injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder, and running back John White, who broke a 29-year-old school record by rushing for 1,519 yards.
"We've solidified the quarterback position after being very thin there last year. Jordan's back to 100 percent and we now have a stable of capable backups," Whittingham says. "We feel good about the quality and depth of our receivers, running backs, tight ends and H-backs. The inside three on the offensive line--the center and two guards--are solid. The question mark heading into fall is the tackle position."
"Jordan is throwing the ball as well as he has since coming here," relates Whittingham. "He's added `good' weight to his frame and is finally where he needs to be physically. Obviously, keeping him healthy will be very important to our success. He's a team leader and has complete command of the offense."
There's also not as much weight on Wynn's surgically-repaired shoulders as there was a year ago when his backups were an untested transfer from a discontinued FCS program, a quarterback-turned linebacker-turned quarterback and a freshman walk-on.
Senior Jon Hays, who transferred to Utah in the summer when Nebraska-Omaha dropped its program, has a lot more experience than he did at this time last year, having started the last nine games of 2011, earning a 6-3 record and a Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech.
True freshman Travis Wilson (San Clemente HS/Calif.) showed in spring camp that he not only will push Hays for the backup job, he'll also put pressure on Wynn. A mobile 6'6", 220-pounder, Wilson quickly adjusted to the speed of the college game and displayed an impressive array of passing and running skills.
Another early-arriving freshman, 2011 Parade All-American Chase Hansen (Lone Peak HS/Utah) also made a good first impression. Hansen and Wilson had plenty of chances to learn the system since they got most of the reps behind Wynn in the spring.
"Jon Hays is a proven commodity so he took a backseat to the freshmen in the spring to allow us to see what they were all about," said Whittingham. "Travis and Chase made a lot of progress during spring ball and it was apparent that they are both extremely talented."
Heisman Trophy candidate John White ranked second in the Pac-12 and 11th in the nation in rushing last season, averaging 116.8 yards per game as a first-year JC transfer. He also led the league and ranked third in the nation with 316 carries. White's honors included second-team all-Pac-12, honorable mention SI.com All-American and Sun Bowl MVP.
"John was the catalyst for our offense for much of last season," recalls Whittingham. "He possesses a great combination of speed and quickness and has excellent vision. He doesn't have great size, but he's as tough as nails and very durable."
Mid-year junior college transfer Kelvin York averaged 130.5 yards a game and 6.3 yards per rush in his final season at Fullerton College in 2010. Heading into fall camp, York is neck-in-neck with sophomore Harvey Langi as White's backup.
"Kelvin is a big (5'11", 223), explosive back who runs well both inside and outside. He still has some technique issues to iron out, but he made a lot of progress in the spring and shows a lot of promise," says Whittingham.
Langi's exceptional play in spring camp reminded observers of why he was such a coveted recruit two signing classes ago. The 6'1", 228-pound sophomore with 4.58 40 speed will find his way onto the field far more often this season than last, when he averaged 5.4 yards a rush on 13 carries.
"Harvey may have been the most improved offensive player during the spring," said Whittingham of the former prep All-American.
Christopher has been Utah's leading receiver for the past two seasons and has five career 100-yard games. Last season he had 42 catches for 663 yards and five touchdowns. Matthews, who was also utilized as an H-back in 2011, made 17 catches for 263 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Dunn made 15 receptions for 211 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 15 times for 173 yards (11.5 average).
"We are counting on DeVonte to be a team leader and a playmaker for us," says Whittingham. "Luke is a very solid player and an exceptional blocker. Both he and Reggie have played a lot of football for us."
The future is now for sophomores Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott. Anderson, son of 10-year NFL receiver Willie "Flipper" Anderson, was Utah's second-leading receiver last season in a part-time role, making 23 grabs for 355 yards and three touchdowns. He is ticketed for a starting job this fall, while Scott, who averaged a team-best 17.6 yards on eight catches a year ago, offers favorable match-up opportunities with his 6'3" size.
"Dres is coming off a solid freshman year, but we need him to be an impact player for us this season," says Whittingham. "Kenneth Scott is another talented young receiver who should get a lot of playing time and has a tremendous upside."
Receivers coach and recently appointed passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick will have even more firepower at his position assuming Charles Henderson recovers from a knee injury that cut short a promising true freshman season (he also missed spring camp) and 6'4", 222-pound Anthony Denham avoids further injuries. Denham was bothered last season by hamstring problems and then missed most of spring ball due to thumb surgery.
When the senior trio returns to action there should still be room for everyone since Johnson plans to retain the H-back position (a hybrid tight end/fullback) in his offense.
"Competition is a good thing and there will be no shortage of it at the tight end/H-back positions," says Whittingham. "Dallin Rogers has played a lot of good football for us as a tight end, but he might fit more into the H-back role in some of our new personnel groups. Our approach is always to get the best players on the field and put them in positions where they can succeed."
"The center and guard positions return several experienced players. Tevita Stevens is an honor candidate and Sam Brenner has been a consistent performer for us over the last several years," says Whittingham.
At left guard, the play of Jeremiah Tofaeono and anticipated return of Latu Heimuli from the injured list allowed new offensive line coach Dan Finn to move Miles Mason to tackle. Mason, who started at left guard in 2011, is one of a big group of contenders for the wide-open tackle positions.
"Those are big shoes to fill," admits Whittingham. "Getting the tackle positions established is job one for the offense going into the fall. The starters won't be solidified until well into camp after we've had the opportunity to get a good look at the incoming recruits."
Junior Percy Taumoelau (left tackle) and redshirt freshman Daniel Nielson (right tackle) hope to fend off challenges from incoming JC transfers Marc Pouvave and Carlos Lozano, returned missionary Kala Friel and Mason.
Strengths: Defensive Line, Defensive Backs
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The first season in the Pac-12 was merely a new opportunity for Utah's defense to dominate as it has since 1994 when Whittingham was the defensive line coach. The 2011 Utes led the Pac-12 in four defensive categories in their first year in the league--including Whittingham's favorite stat--scoring defense.
Famous for their fearsome defensive line, 2012 should be no different for the Utes, who return three starters including senior Star Lotulelei, considered by many as the best defensive tackle in the nation.
Three starters also return in the secondary, where Utah will showcase possibly the premier safety tandem in the Pac-12. Junior Brian Blechen and sophomore Eric Rowe both made four Freshman All-America teams as true freshmen (Blechen in 2010 and Rowe in 2011).
The linebacker corps has potential, but with just one returning starter, is young and untested.
"We're elated to have Star back with us for his senior season," says Whittingham. "He is the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 and maybe the best interior defensive lineman in the country. He demands double- and even triple-teams, which allows our linebackers the freedom to make a lot of plays. Even though his stats were not overwhelming, the fact that his peers voted him the outstanding lineman in the league speaks volumes about his ability."
Opponents won't find any relief by avoiding Lotulelei since senior all-conference candidate Dave Kruger, starting for his fourth season, lurks nearby.
"Dave worked hard this off season in the weight room and is up to 300 pounds now. As a fifth-year senior, this is his chance to shine," says Whittingham. "Playing next to Star means that Dave will be single-teamed most of the time, which in turn should allow him to be very productive for us."
A key to Utah's longtime success on the defensive line is its liberal substitution pattern that keeps players fresh. This season will be no different. Returners who will spell the tackles include junior LT Tuipulotu and redshirt freshman Viliseni Fauonuku. Two All-America junior college transfers expected to make an immediate impact in the fall are Junior Salt and Tenny Palepoi.
"Joe's improved size and strength was very apparent in the spring," says Whittingham. "Joe has a lot of length--an asset for a defensive end--and he's become a complete player in terms of being able to defend both the run and the pass."
Nate Fakahafua also bulked up in the offseason in preparation for becoming the starter at left end after an impressive true freshman campaign. "Nate is up to 250 pounds and he is very athletic. We think he's going to surprise a lot of people in the conference this season," predicts Whittingham.
The backups are all new, led by converted running back Thretton Palamo, true freshman Hunter Dimick (Syracuse HS/Utah) and JC transfer Niasi Leota. Both Dimick and Leota arrived in time for spring ball. Starting linebacker Trevor Reilly plays end in certain situations and Whittingham is considering moving junior tight end Westlee Tonga here as well.
"Trevor is a big play guy," says Whittingham. "He is a versatile athlete and can play both linebacker and defensive end. He's agile enough to do everything you need to do in coverage as a linebacker, and possesses the physicality and explosiveness to be an effective pass rusher as a defensive end."
A youth movement is underway at rover and middle linebacker, where Utah lost a ton of tackles with the graduation of Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, who combined for more than 200 tackles a season in both 2010 and 2011.
Sophomores Jacoby Hale (rover) and V.J. Fehoko (middle) are the frontrunners heading into fall camp. "Jacoby and V.J. are showing signs of developing into very good linebackers," says Whittingham. "Jacoby had an excellent spring and made a lot of big plays. He's probably the fastest linebacker and his speed (4.55 40) is his greatest asset."
Three other youngsters with tantalizing potential are redshirt freshmen LT Filiaga, Jason Whittingham (nephew of Kyle Whittingham) and Jared Norris. Filiaga is pushing Hale for the starting job at rover and Whittingham will take over at stud when Reilly's number is called at defensive end.
"Ryan Lacy has exceptional speed (4.32 40) and Mo Lee has good size (6'1", 191) for a corner," says Whittingham. "They both compare favorably with the top corners we've had come through here over the past several years. The heavy dose of man coverage that is so prevalent in our defensive schemes suits their skill sets well. Ryan and Mo both possess all the tools necessary to excel at the corner position."
Backups include converted safety Keith McGill, whose 6'3" stature is reminiscent of former Ute and current NFL corner Sean Smith, and sophomores Wykie Freeman and Chandler Johnson. Junior Mike Honeycutt, who appeared in 25 games the past two years, will start in the nickel package.
True freshmen Reggie Porter (Amite HS/La.) and Justin Thomas (West Orange-Stark HS/Texas) will compete come fall. Thomas was a Rivals.com four-star recruit.
"Both Brian and Eric are off to great starts in our program," praises Whittingham. "Brian is an instinctive player and he is doing a better job of playing within the structure of the defense as he heads into his third year. Eric came in and played right away as a true freshman without the benefit of spring ball, so we're excited to see the strides he can make in his second year."
Junior Quade Chappuis earned a scholarship after making valuable contributions in 2011 and can play both safety positions.
"Quade has improved dramatically over the past couple of years away and continues to fight for playing time," says Whittingham. "With Brian, Eric and Quade back there, we have three guys we feel good about."
Strengths: Kicker, Punter
Honorable mention all-Pac-12 last year and the league's top returning kicker, Coleman Petersen finished second in the conference in field goals made (18) and field goal percentage (72%) as a junior.
"Coleman hit some big kicks for us last year," remembers Whittingham. "We've had a good run with our place kickers over the past several seasons and with Coleman returning we expect that trend to continue."
Senior punter Sean Sellwood has started off and on since 2009 when he was a second-team Freshman All-American. Last year, he averaged 45.0 yards on 50 punts with 16 placed inside the 20 and 19 fair catches.
Junior Nick Marsh will handle kickoffs for the third consecutive year and also backs up Petersen on place kicks and Sellwood on punts.
Senior Patrick Greene has snapped the ball for every punt and kick for the past three seasons and Sellwood will hold for a third season.
DeVonte Christopher and Reggie Dunn are the probable choices to return kickoffs. Christopher was the Sun Bowl Special Teams MVP while Dunn led the Utes with 26 returns for a 23.6-yard average in 2011. Punt returner Charles Henderson averaged 12.6 yards per return as a true freshman before a knee injury ended his season.
"It's going to be critical that we have some guys step up for us in the return game. You can never have too many returners and we plan on taking a look at several players during the course of fall camp," says Whittingham.
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