Losing a four-year starter at quarterback, a dominant running back and two leading receivers can spell trouble for most college football teams. Utah faces this exact scenario entering the 2016 season. It raises some familiar questions about the state of the Utes' offense and whether or not Utah can improve on that side of the ball.
Utah players are confident they can put those questions to rest this season with a more dynamic offense populated with talented newcomers.
“We get boasted about our defense every year,” senior running back Joe Williams said. “We got the no. 1 defensive line, good secondary, good linebacking corps. But I really feel like we're going to turn heads with the offense.”
What can Utah fans expect to see from the Utes on offense this season? Here's a quick breakdown of each position group:
Utah entered fall camp with a three-way battle between Troy Williams, Tyler Huntley and Brandon Cox to succeed Travis Wilson. Williams quickly separated himself from the other two and will be the starting quarterback heading into the season opener against Southern Utah.
Williams has already carved out a positive reputation for himself in multiple ways. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham praised the junior's decision-making skills, his grasp of the offense and his work ethic. For him, Williams is a player who isn't satisfied with the status quo.
“He's a workaholic,” Whittingham said. “He's constantly trying to improve and make himself better pretty much every waking hour. His approach to the game is excellent.”
Williams came into the program as a highly touted recruit out of Santa Monica (Calif.) College after transferring from Washington. In his lone season there, he threw for 2,750 yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions on 180-of-265 passing.
Huntley, a true freshman from Florida, secured the backup spot behind Williams. Cox transferred out of the program at the conclusion of fall camp and will play at Hampton, a FCS school, this season.
Joe Williams returns as the primary ball carrier in the backfield after starting the final three games in 2015. Williams was pressed into action after Devontae Booker suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arizona. In those three starts, he tallied 399 yards and three touchdowns on 85 carries.
His speed and agility will serve Utah's run-oriented offense well, if Williams can cut down on his tendency to fumble. While the senior will be the lead back, the Utes will not lean on him as a workhorse in the same way they did with Booker.
Troy McCormick will get an opportunity to shine as the no. 2 back. McCormick possesses tremendous speed and elusiveness. The Utes also plan to use him at slot receiver at times.
Behind Williams and McCormick are a stable of promising freshmen and junior college transfers. Zach Moss, in particular, could push for playing time. The true freshman is a power runner in the mold of Booker and he has the size and speed to be a bruising ball carrier.
Utah lost its top four receivers from last season. Kenneth Scott, Devontae Booker and Bubba Poole all graduated and Britain Covey embarked on a two-year LDS mission. That could be a huge concern for a passing offense (180.0 yards per game) that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 106th among FBS teams.
Still, the Utes feel confident about downfield options both at wide receiver and tight end heading into this season. Tim Patrick returns at wide receiver after sitting out last season because of injuries. He headlines a young, but talented group that includes Tyrone Smith, Kyle Fulks, Raelon Singleton, Demari Simpkins and Caleb Repp.
Utah could get another boost if Cory Butler-Byrd is fully reinstated to the team following recent legal troubles. Butler-Byrd was partially reinstated after fall camp ended. He can participate in practices and team activities, but remains suspended from playing in games.
Patrick is predicting a big year for the receivers under new assistant coach Guy Holliday. He said the group has the size and speed to really stretch the field and keep defenses honest. Patrick, for his part, wants to be a consistent playmaking threat.
“Make plays,” Patrick said, describing his role in the offense. “That's it. Big plays. We didn't have many big plays last year. To win in this league, we got to have a lot of big plays and that's what I'm trying to bring to the team.”
Tight Ends and Offensive Line
Utah's main strength in the passing game is at tight end. Harrison Handley emerged as a reliable target over the middle a year ago, piling up 286 yards and four touchdowns on 21 catches. Joining him is Evan Moeai, who returns after suffering a season-ending injury a year ago.
Whittingham said Handley has progressed in multiple areas during the offseason, adding weight and improving even more as a pass catcher.
“Harrison has evolved into a really good tight end,” Whittingham said. “He's very conscientious and detail-oriented. He very rarely, if ever, blows an assignment. He's always doing what he's supposed to be doing. He's got great hands.”
Utah's depth and experience in the trenches will serve the team well in giving newcomers at the skill positions time to acclimate to the offense. The Utes return four starters along the offensive line – led by senior center J.J. Dielman, a second-team all-Pac-12 selection at right tackle a year ago.
With that group setting the tone up front, Utah ranked fourth among Pac-12 teams in rushing offense (183.0 ypg) last season.
— 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.