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Utah Utes 2016 Spring Football Preview

Author:
Joe Williams

Joe Williams

Utah is transforming into a team other Pac-12 teams don't want to face.

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The Utes are coming off their best season since joining the league – finishing 10-3 overall and earning a bowl victory and final Top 25 ranking for the second consecutive season. Can Utah keep all of this momentum going forward in 2016?

The Utes have the ingredients in place to carve out another memorable season. Utah is strong once again on defense. The biggest mystery – like in past seasons – is how the offense will perform once fall arrives.

Five Storylines to Watch in Utah’s Spring Practice

1. Replacing Devontae Booker

Booker functioned as the engine that drove Utah's offense for the past two seasons. Filling his shoes won't be an easy task. Utah does have a stable of capable running backs, though, who can step up into a bigger role this season.

Joe Williams has the early edge for the top spot. The speedy senior made three starts after Booker went down with a season-ending injury a year ago. He totaled 477 yards and three touchdowns on 104 carries. Williams had issues with fumbling during his three starts, so the door is definitely wide open for Troy McCormick or incoming freshman Zach Moss to push for playing time.

Related: College Football's Top 10 Impact JUCO Transfer Quarterbacks for 2016

2. Who will start at quarterback?

For the first time since 2012, Utah opens a season without Travis Wilson at quarterback. Wilson set the school record for quarterback starts (39) and games played (46). He finished with 7,403 career passing yards, 54 touchdown passes, 21 rushing touchdowns and 8,627 yards of total offense.

Junior college transfer Troy Williams, redshirt sophomore Brandon Cox and true freshman Tyler Huntley will be battling to be the new Utah quarterback. Williams is likely the front-runner after throwing for 2,750 yards, 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions during his sophomore season at Santa Monica (Calif.) College.

3. Breaking in new linebackers

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Linebacker is the only defensive position group with major question marks coming into spring camp. Utah must endure the difficult task of replacing standouts Gionni Paul and Jared Norris. Paul and Norris set the pace for the defense, combining for 204 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, eight pass breakups and four forced fumbles.

Utah has some promising junior college talent to fill those open spots at linebacker. David Laufatasaga, a transfer from Arizona Western College, can step in and make an immediate impact. Laufatasaga has great size for a linebacker and is a relentless hitter. Kurtis Taufa, a transfer from Snow (Utah) College, also could earn an immediate starting role with his ability to read offenses and quickly get to the ball.

4. Restocking special teams

Replacing a punter may not seem like a big deal. But when it is two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett, it's a different story. Hackett played a critical role in winning field position battles last season. He led the Pac-12 and ranked second in the FBS in net punting, averaging 48 yards per punt. Hackett totaled a school record 10,933 career punt yards at Utah. The Utes have brought in another Australian punter, Mitch Wishnowsky, to try and fill his shoes.

Things are more settled at placekicker where Andy Phillips returns for his senior season. Phillips went 23-of-27 (.852) on field goals as a junior – highlighted by a career-long 53 yard kick against USC. He also went 47-of-47 on PATs, making 100 percent for the second time in three seasons.

5. Will the receivers take a step forward?

Utah hired Guy Holliday away from BYU during the offseason as the team's new receivers coach. Holliday will inherit the task of finding a way to elevate a position group that underachieved at times last season while replacing the Utes' top two receivers from 2015.

Kenneth Scott graduated and Britain Covey departed for a two-year Mormon mission. Utah's top returning receivers are tight end Harrison Handley (21 catches, 286 yards, four touchdowns) and wide receiver Tyrone Smith (18 catches, 193 yards). Tim Patrick, a key contributor in 2014, also is expected to return after sitting out 2015 with a leg injury.

The door is wide open for returning contributors like Patrick, Handley, Smith, Caleb Repp and Kenric Young to step up and put together breakout seasons. Newcomers like Alec Dana and Demari Simpkins will have a chance to also carve out a role.

Utah's Pre-Spring Outlook in the Pac-12

There are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the Utes this season. Utah's offensive and defensive lines are loaded with skill, experience and depth. The Utes also remain strong in the secondary and on special teams.

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Utah has brought in several promising new playmakers at the offensive skill positions. The Utes lack experience in some areas of the offense, but if the talent at quarterback receiver, and running back lives up to its potential, there should not be any significant drop-off for Utah in the Pac-12 South.

If Utah can duplicate or build on what it has done the past two seasons, the Utes may once again challenge for a Pac-12 South title.

— 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.