After another productive season in Salt Lake City under coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes look to take that next step for the program. The offensive line will be a strength, but that’s about it on offense with numerous question marks at the other positions. Utah hopes junior college transfer Troy Williams is the answer at quarterback, while running back Joe Williams looks to build off a strong finish to 2015. The defense is anchored by a strong front seven and has a chance to be the best in the Pac-12.
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Previewing Utah’s Offense
The discussion of Utah begins the same way every year. The Utes’ defense compares favorably to any group in the Pac-12, so if their offense improves, they will challenge for the South title.
Travis Wilson finished his career No. 2 on Utah’s list of career wins for a starting quarterback (24) after taking the job midway through his freshman year. The Utes will miss Wilson’s running ability but hope to expand their passing game with any of three contenders for the position. Troy Williams was the presumed favorite as a junior college transfer who started his career at Washington. Williams was unable to play during the last three weeks of spring drills, however, due to a sore arm. Brandon Cox is the only remaining quarterback from previous recruiting classes, and his only action came in one game in 2014. Injuries have limited Cox’s chances of climbing the depth chart in the past, but the coaches like his ability. They’re also impressed with freshman Tyler Huntley, who joined the team in January. Utah is listing all three as co-starters going into August.
Utah’s offense relied heavily on Devontae Booker for two seasons, but the Utes made a discovery in November when Booker was sidelined by a knee injury after gaining 1,261 yards in 10 games. Joe Williams emerged as a productive, explosive runner with 399 yards in the final three games.
The inability of Utah’s receivers to get open, particularly on deep patterns, held back the offense in 2015. Some talented players are available, including Tim Patrick, who needs to stay healthy. Cory Butler-Byrd was primarily a cornerback for most of the season, while appearing occasionally on offense.
Utah expects to have five juniors or seniors starting up front, led by right tackle J.J. Dielman.
Previewing Utah’s Defense
In his first year as Utah’s coordinator, Morgan Scalley says he wants to field a “fast and nasty” defense. It all starts up front for the Utes, who keep producing NFL-level talent on the line. The leader is junior Lowell Lotulelei, who made the All-Pac-12 first team after recording five tackles for a loss and helping the Utes rank first in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 108.6 yards per game.
Dealing with spread offenses, the Utes employ only two linebackers about 80 percent of the time. Sunia Tauteoli and Cody Barton made good progress in the spring after playing behind some talented linebackers last year. The Utes also expect immediate impact from junior college transfer David Luafatasaga.
The Utes recorded 22 interceptions in 2015, two years after picking off only three passes. Free safety Marcus Williams made the All-Pac-12 first team after leading Utah with five interceptions.
Previewing Utah’s Specialists
Punter Tom Hackett was one of Utah’s biggest weapons, averaging 48.0 yards as a senior and often pinning opponents deep in their territory. The Utes have landed another Australian punter, Mitch Wishnowsky. Andy Phillips is one of the Pac-12’s top kickers. Phillips made 23-of-27 field goals last season, including 15-of-15 from inside 40 yards.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham considers a 2015 Pac-12 South co-championship both an achievement for the program and a missed opportunity. The Utes regret November losses to Arizona and UCLA that kept them from overtaking USC in the standings and playing in the conference championship game, but they’ve advanced to a point where they’re in the conversation among the South’s contenders.
“Nobody cares about being close; you’ve got to actually win it,” Whittingham says. “But we hope we’re a team that people take notice of every year.”