Utes rank No. 38 in Athlon’s Top 130 for 2017
Over the last three seasons, Utah has won at least nine games and been a tough out in the Pac-12 South Division. However, the Utes are still looking for their first division title since joining the conference in 2011. Head coach Kyle Whittingham is hoping a change at offensive coordinator will jumpstart a unit that had its share of struggles in 2016. Having an experienced quarterback should help but otherwise, Utah is dealing with a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball. The Utes should reach bowl eligibility with little difficulty, but how competitive they’ll be in the Pac-12 South will depend largely on how quickly all of the new pieces come together.
Previewing Utah Football’s Offense for 2017
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham blames an inadequate offense for making the Utes the only Pac-12 South program that has not won a division title since the conference’s expansion six years ago. That’s why he hired Troy Taylor as his eighth play caller in nine seasons.
Taylor’s charge is to energize an offense led by quarterback Troy Williams, who started all 13 games in 2016 as a junior college transfer, passing for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the Utes to a victory over USC by directing three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half. Williams played inconsistently in losses to Washington, Oregon and Colorado late in the season, but he expects to be sharper as a senior in what he says is a “quarterback-friendly” system.
The story of Utah’s 2016 season at running back may never be duplicated. Joe Williams retired from football after two games only to return a month later and produce a 1,407-yard season. Williams’ comeback became necessary because of injuries to his top replacements. Those players, Armand Shyne and Zack Moss, will be the Utes’ primary rushers. Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who carried the ball only once as a freshman, was a star of the spring.
Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson and Demari Simpkins are among the receivers who hope to thrive in a more dynamic offense. The Utes are replacing four starters, notably left tackle Garett Bolles, from one of the Pac-12’s best offensive lines. Bolles’ departure to the NFL after one season as a junior college transfer is a big loss, but the Utes have the makings of another solid group.
Previewing Utah Football’s Defense for 2017
After being considered the defense’s weakest area in 2016, the linebacking is “one of our stronger positions,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley says. “They’re the same guys, they’re just older now.”
Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga should be more productive in a scheme that primarily uses only two linebackers, with five defensive backs being needed against the passing offenses of the Pac-12.
The Utes are in the midst of a “complete rebuild” in the secondary, Whittingham says. The exception is strong safety Chase Hansen, a converted quarterback who has become a defensive star. Hansen had four fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 7.5 tackles for a loss in 2016.
Previewing Utah Football’s Specialists for 2017
The Utes have made punting and placekicking fun to watch in recent years, although Whittingham would rather have drives finish with extra points than punts and field goals. Mitch Wishnowsky won the program’s third consecutive Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter, averaging 47.7 yards. He rarely sacrificed hang time for distance, although Utah allowed a punt return for Washington’s winning score. Utah must replace kicker Andy Phillips, who concluded his record-setting career with the winning field goal in the bowl game.
Utah has established itself as one of the Pac-12’s most consistent programs, but there’s more to do. Whittingham is driven to make his team the South’s sixth winner in seven seasons.
“We’re not going to apologize for winning nine-plus games the last three years, but we want to win a championship,” Whittingham says. “We’ve got to find a way to break through.”
The Utes’ Oct. 14 visit to USC will be pivotal. Utah has beaten the Trojans two of the past three seasons.