Utah has finally reached a point where rebuilding has given way to reloading. The Utes enter the 2017 season with some holes to fill in key positions in the secondary, along the offensive line and on special teams. Filling those holes will be a task Utah can handle.
Earlier this year, head coach Kyle Whittingham brought in his highest-rated recruiting class since the Utes joined the Pac-12. Combined with redshirt freshmen and returned missionaries from previous classes and talented transfers, Utah has several players who appear poised to become major contributors from day one.
Corrion Ballard, DB
It hasn't taken long for Ballard (above, right) to step into a leadership role in the secondary. With Chase Hansen sidelined during fall camp, Ballard has grasped the reins of a unit returning only one starter from last season.
“He's only been here for one semester prior to this fall and he has got the defense down inside and out,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “And with the absence of Chase Hansen back there, he's taken control.”
Ballard seems like an ideal and natural leader for Utah's secondary. He totaled 41 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble at Blinn (Texas) College last season.
The junior safety is determined to similarly fill the stat sheet for the Utes and be the type of successor to Marcus Williams that Utah fans are hoping to see. Ballard feels like he is bigger, stronger and faster after putting in tons of work during the spring and summer and is ready to contribute.
"Ain't no pressure,” Ballard said. “I can stand up to the challenge for sure. It is like a dream come true and a blessing coming here to Utah with the DB history and everything.”
Darren Carrington, WR
Oregon's loss could be Utah's gain. Carrington was dismissed from the Ducks by new head coach Willie Taggart following a DUI arrest in July. The senior receiver transferred to the Utes before the start of fall camp and the Pac-12 waived the intra-conference transfer penalty, allowing Carrington to play this season.
He immediately becomes the top deep threat for Utah. Carrington ranked first or second in total receiving yards in each of his three seasons at Oregon. He totaled 1,919 yards and 17 touchdowns on 112 catches during his time with the Ducks.
Carrington joins fellow transfer Josh Nurse and returners Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson and Demari Simpkins to give the Utes their best depth and talent in their receiving corps in ages. It could be exactly what the offense needs to take a step forward.
"We've got some receivers that are going to go get it,” Utah quarterback Troy Williams said.
Jaylon Johnson, DB
Nothing intimidates Johnson. He isn't approaching his first season at Utah like a typical freshman. Johnson is determined to make a name for himself at corner while simultaneously leading his new team to success.
Johnson is determined to become a starter before the season is over. He also has set his sights on becoming a freshman All-American. Lofty goals for certain. Still, each one is achievable in Johnson's mind because he feels like the Utah defense fits his skills like a glove.
“It's definitely aggressive and definitely fast and those are my two best attributes,” Johnson said. “I'm big and I'm fast and I'm smart and that's everything that the Utah defense is.”
Johnson was one of the brightest gems in Utah's 2016 recruiting class. His speed and athleticism are exactly what the Utes need in the defensive backfield. The freshman can cover a 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds and boasts a 38-inch vertical leap.
Maxs Tupai, DE
After a spending a year redshirting, Tupai is ready to make his mark on the defensive line. The freshman was the No. 1 overall recruit in the state of Utah as a high school senior in 2015. He totaled 229 career tackles, 42.5 career sacks and seven forced fumbles during his high school career.
Utah seems to grow talented defensive linemen on trees. Tupai is yet another in-staet product who seems to have everything necessary to be the latest star up front. He worked himself into the two-deep at right end coming into fall camp and has endless potential to be a disruptive force in the trenches.
Tupai credits his redshirt year with helping him absorb the defensive schemes and learn what it takes to be effective at the college level. The offensive linemen Tupai lined up against on the scout team were quick to offer up some insight on how he could get an edge on his opponent.
“It was really helpful because they were teaching me mechanics, like what offensive tackles would do and offensive guards would do, just so I could get used to it, perfect my technique and get better,” Tupai said.
Jordan Agasiva, OL
Utah dipped into the junior college ranks once again, bringing in Agasiva to shore up a depleted offensive line. The last time that the Utes took such an approach, it worked out well. Garett Bolles became one of the nation's top linemen in his lone season at Utah and parlayed it into a first-round NFL draft selection in April.
Agasiva has all the tools to be another success story. The 6-foot-4, 345-pound junior has the size and enough mobility to push around opposing defensive linemen. He also has enough versatility to play at tackle or guard. Agasiva was listed as starting right guard on the depth chart when fall camp opened, but injuries have limited his participation in camp.
If Agasiva can return to 100 percent by the season opener, he could help Utah feel less of a sting from losing four starters along its offensive line.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Photos courtesy of Brooke Frederickson, University of Utah)