Utah should be feeling pretty good for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best season as Pac-12 member, winning nine games for the first time since 2010 and finishing with a winning conference record for the first time since moving over from the Mountain West. Yet Utah has reason for concern as defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen both left in arguably lateral moves. The defense is the question for the short term, but the long term question is if Utah will be able to continue the momentum that began in 2014.
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Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2015
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson’s career was in question after the 2013 season due to an intracranial condition, but he was cleared to play and earned the starting job in 2014. Wilson’s up-and-down performance led to Kendal Thompson replacing him as the starter twice during the season, before Thompson’s knee injury enabled Wilson to regain the position through the Utes’ Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State.
Wilson succeeded in cutting down his interceptions from 16 as a sophomore to five as a junior, but he never seemed comfortable with former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who’s now Texas A&M’s offensive line coach. Aaron Roderick, promoted as Utah’s co-offensive coordinator, wants Wilson to complete a higher percentage of passes. “We’re not trying to reinvent what we were doing. We just want to get better at it,” Roderick says.
Running back Devontae Booker was a big discovery for the Utes in 2014 as a junior college transfer. Once he established himself as the featured back, he became a consistent force in the Pac-12, averaging 130.1 yards in conference games. Booker is a tough inside runner with explosive speed, and his 1,512-yard total fell just short of the school’s single-season record.
Utah will rely heavily on senior receiver Kenneth Scott, who led the team with 48 catches and four touchdowns, including a game-winning reception in overtime at Stanford.
The Utes took a hit when tackle Jeremiah Poutasi entered the NFL Draft as a junior, but they return the bulk of a line that improved in position coach Jim Harding’s first season and paved the way for Booker’s big year. Left guard Isaac Asiata and center Siaosi Aiono are returning starters who played consistently.
Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2015
Utah must replace end Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks. John Pease, the Utes’ new defensive coordinator, hopes that end Hunter Dimick will at least match his 10 sacks from last year, even though he will receive more attention now.
Utah’s linebackers were hit with injuries last season, but the coaches pieced things together well enough for the Utes to rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game. Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player, capable of covering receivers and making big hits in the running game. Norris made a team-high 116 tackles, including 13 for a loss.
The cornerback position is a concern for Pease after Dominique Hatfield was dismissed in July. Converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams.
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Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2015
Utah wants to move the ball and score touchdowns, but punting and kicking field goals are the team’s biggest strengths. Australian punter Tom Hackett averaged 46.7 yards, and 36 of his 80 punts went inside the 20-yard line. Andy Phillips missed a field goal in an overtime loss at Arizona State, but he was otherwise dependable, finishing 23-of-28 for the season, including 12-of-15 from 40 yards or longer.
Utah is getting closer. In their fourth season of Pac-12 membership, the Utes posted their first winning record (5–4) in conference play and competed favorably against nearly every opponent. Coach Kyle Whittingham likes the program’s trajectory entering its fifth season in the Pac-12. “We’ve taken a step forward every year with our depth and talent on the roster, one through 85,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress … but we feel like last year we made a lot of headway.”
In 2015, the Utes hope to overcome a lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary while counting on their senior quarterback to play more consistently as he completes an adventurous career.