The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 54 Utah.
Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2014:
Utah’s best moment of the 2013 season also became the start of a downward spiral that created a complicated quarterbacking situation in 2014. While leading the Utes past Stanford, quarterback Travis Wilson injured his hand. He struggled in the next three games, then was diagnosed with a concussion. Further tests revealed a pre-existing condition that sidelined him for Utah’s final three games. Wilson was cleared to participate in spring drills, without being tackled, and reclaimed his No. 1 position. He’ll be re-evaluated in July.
Regardless of Wilson’s status, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will compete for the starting job. He’s listed No. 2, prior to arriving on campus as a graduate student with two years of eligibility remaining. “Finding out about Kendal will be job one,” coach Kyle Whittingham says.
The Utes also are adjusting to new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen’s fast-paced scheme. The spread offense is similar to what the Utes have used, but the tempo is “drastically different,” Christensen says.
Leading rusher Bubba Poole returns, but the Utes need help at receiver to complement the dynamic Dres Anderson. Much is expected from Kenneth Scott, who caught 32 passes in 2012 before being injured in last season’s opener, and Kaelin Clay, who will have one season to play as a junior college transfer.
Utah’s offensive linemen were asked to lose weight to thrive in the up-tempo offense, and left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi has responded well.
Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2014:
Utah will miss Trevor Reilly, a versatile athlete who played end and linebacker in various alignments and led the team with 8.5 sacks as a senior. Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake hopes senior Nate Orchard can fill Reilly’s void as a disruptive lineman who also can move around in the scheme.
Utah appeared loaded at linebacker in their 4-3 scheme until Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul sustained significant injuries during spring drills. Hale recorded 6.5 sacks last season, helping the Utes lead the Pac-12 with 3.25 sacks per game, and Paul was making a great impression as a transfer from Miami. Each is expected to become available at some point this season, but for now, Uaea Masina is listed as the starter at one position and as the backup at another spot. Orchard may be asked to spend more time at linebacker.
The Utes were tied for last in the country with only three interceptions in 2013, and they hope Brian Blechen’s return at strong safety will make an impact. Blechen, who has eight interceptions in 35 career games, missed last season with tendinitis in his knee. Eric Rowe is a returning starter at free safety, but Sitake hopes Tevin Carter establishes himself at that position, enabling Rowe to move to cornerback.
Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2014:
Andy Phillips became a big story as a former international ski racer who tried out for the team and earned the placekicking job as a freshman at age 24. Phillips made three field goals in his first football game at any level and finished 17-of-20 for the season, including a 51-yarder against Arizona State. Tom Hackett excelled as a short-punting specialist in 2012 and earned the full-time job in 2013, when he averaged 43.4 yards and the Utes led the Pac-12 in net punting.
Whittingham believes the Utes are improving their talent level and depth in their fourth season of Pac-12 membership. They were competitive in every conference game in 2013, including an upset of eventual champion Stanford, but the Utes need to double last season’s total of two conference wins for 2014 to be judged as any kind of success.