The Utes are hoping for big contributions this fall from sophomore running back Zack Moss
Utah could undergo a football evolution this season. The Utes built their identity in the Pac-12 with a bruising defense and a relentless running game. This year, Utah is looking to tweak that formula.
High-flying offenses are a staple of Pac-12 football. The Utes made some moves to get up to speed on that side of the ball, bringing in new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, who had great success with a wide-open aerial attack at FCS member Eastern Washington last season.
Will it be enough to turn Utah's offense into an element as consistently dangerous as the Utes' defense? That's just one of the key questions facing the Utes heading into the 2017 season.
1. Can Utah generate more consistent red zone production?
Stopping teams isn't a problem for the Utes. Finding ways to make strong defensive play count has been a different story.
Utah moved the chains well, at times, last season. Once the Utes advanced inside the 20-yard line, however, things unraveled. They scored 42 times on 54 trips to the red zone with just 27 touchdowns. Overall, Utah ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in red zone conversions.
Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham brought in Taylor to help address this issue. In his final season at Eastern Washington, Taylor helped direct an offense that led the FCS in passing offense (401.0 ypg), ranked second in total offense (529.6 ypg) and third in scoring offense (42.4 ppg).
Such a track record has inspired a ton of confidence for Utah in its ability to become a more potent offense in 2017.
"His system proves to put a lot of points on the board,” senior quarterback Troy Williams said. “I did a lot of research on him and his quarterbacks seem to do very well when they're running his system. So I'm excited to get to work.”
2. Who will replace Andy Phillips?
Few teams can offer better evidence of the value of a good kicker than Utah. The Utes pulled out multiple victories in tight games behind the accurate leg of Phillips. During his four seasons, Phillips became the school’s all-time leader in field goals made (84), field goal attempts (100), PATs made (175), PAT percentage (.994), career points (427) and points scored per game (8.4)
Now that Phillips has graduated, a significant void remains on Utah's special teams. Three kickers battled to replace him at the start of fall camp. Two of those, Chayden Johnston and Matt Gay, pulled ahead as camp wound down. Neither Johnston nor Gay has shown enough consistency yet to seize the starting job.
Kicking carries higher expectations since Phillips left his mark, but Utah's current crop of kickers insist they're not intimidated about the prospect of stepping into his shoes.
"I wouldn't use the word intimidating,” Johnston said. “I don't think it's intimidating at all. We're all just very grateful he laid down a foundation that he did so we can continue it."
3. How will inexperience impact the offensive line?
Replacing four starters on the offensive line is never an easy task. That's the exact scenario Utah faces this season. Salesi Uhatafe is the lone starter back from last year.
Uhalafe, a four-year starter, will be the team's anchor up front. He spent the last three seasons at right guard and now will shift over to right tackle this fall. The senior played 936 snaps a year ago and has appeared in all 39 possible games during his first three years.
Experience is in short supply around Uhalafe, but the talent pool is still plenty deep. Jordan Agasiva, a highly touted junior college transfer, will take over Uhalafe's old spot at right guard. Other likely starters include senior Lo Fakemala at center, sophomore Darrin Paulo at left guard and junior Jackson Barton at left tackle. Other linemen in the mix include Johnny Capra, Paul Toala, Orlando Umana and Scott Peck.
Unlike past seasons, there isn't as much concern for Utah replacing so many starters on the offensive line because the overall depth is improved across the board.
"It took some time to get some traction and get the whole roster up to where it needed to be,” Whittingham said. “We've closed the gap. We're not a finished product. I'll never say we're a finished product, but we've closed the gap considerably since we joined the league six years ago."
4. Who will emerge in Utah's backfield?
Producing dominant running backs is second nature at Utah. The Utes have produced three different 1,000-yard rushers since joining the Pac-12. Joe Williams was the latest one, churning out 1,407 yards in his final season while appearing in just nine games. Williams briefly retired for four games before returning to help shore up a Utah backfield decimated by the injury bug.
His successor is a familiar face to Utah fans. Zach Moss emerged as the lead back in fall camp after making three starts as a freshman a year ago. Moss rushed for 382 yards and two touchdowns on 84 carries. Fellow sophomore Devontae Henry-Cole is the clear no. 2 back heading into the opener against North Dakota.
Junior Armand Shyne was in the mix to start until suffering an injury in fall camp. Shyne is now expected to be sidelined for an indefinite period of time. A knee injury ended Shyne's season a year ago after only five games. He tallied 373 yards and four touchdowns on 78 carries.
Seniors Troy McCormick and Jordan Howard will provide additional backfield depth should the Utes need it again this year. Freshman T.J. Green is a possible redshirt candidate if the backs ahead of him stay healthy.
5. How will inexperience impact the secondary?
Only one area on Utah's defense is a question mark. The Utes are stacked, as usual, with experienced and talented defensive linemen. All of the key linebackers from a year ago are back again this fall. The secondary, on the other hand, is reloading with new young talent.
Chase Hansen is the lone returning starter and Hansen missed the bulk of fall camp with an undisclosed injury. Once he returns to full strength, Hansen will offer valuable leadership in the secondary. The junior safety led Utah both in tackles (90) and pass breakups (9) last season. He also ranked second nationally in fumble recoveries (4).
Beyond Hansen, the Utes expect to get major contributions from junior college transfer Corrion Ballard at the other safety spot. Marquese Blair, another junior, and Philip Afia, a sophomore, are also in the two-deep at safety.
Punt returner Boobie Hobbs tops the depth chart at nickel back. Freshman Jaylon Johnson and sophomore Julian Blackmon both made noise at cornerback in fall camp and have a good shot at entering the season as starters.
Utah has produced a Pac-12-best 52 interceptions over the last three seasons. Given the level of talent in the secondary, it shouldn't be tough to keep that disruption going this fall.
— 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.