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2012 Utah Utes Preview

Discussion in 'Thread Archive' started by selahsdaddy, Jul 15, 2012.

  1. selahsdaddy

    selahsdaddy Walk On

    Jul 13, 2009

    Among the primary questions heading into 2012 football season, some of the biggest story lines are on teams getting "called up," so to speak, and the consequences of doing so.
    Can TCU hold its own in the Big 12 after years in the mid-major universe? "Can Texas A&M and Missouri cut it in the SEC?" And it makes sense, really. Leaving aside the tiny matter of these leaps being in no way equal (to say the least, the Big 12 is a lot closer to the SEC than the Mountain West is to the Big 12), we spend a lot of time developing generalizations about certain conferences and the grind to which others outside of those conferences might eventually succumb.
    It will obviously be interesting to see how things play out in that regard, but history suggests that teams don't change much from the perspective of advanced statistics. If you ranked 20th, 30th or 80th in F/+ (or your advanced stat of choice) before the move, you'll do about the same after, and your record will be dictated by how many better teams you play. TCU should play like a Top 25 team regardless of conference affiliation (only, they will play more fellow Top 25 teams this fall), and Texas A&M and Missouri will each potentially face about one more good team in the SEC than they did in last year's pretty loaded Big 12.
    Of course, that's the numbers perspective. The anecdotal perspective basically tells us the same thing. Utah made the jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 last season, struggled at quarterback, fell stagnant on offense and STILL almost made it to the Pac-12 title game. A 17-14 upset loss to Colorado, fueled in part by three missed field goals, prevented that from happening, but an 8-5 debut season and a ton of returning experience have made folks in Salt Lake City pretty optimistic. Like, really, really optimistic. Head coach Kyle Whittingham? Excited. The folks at Block U? Thinking big. The local media? Saying "loaded" a lot.
    Last year's semi-success was somewhat predictable for anybody paying attention. The Utes' defense has been good for awhile, and it is quite fair to say that a Pac-12 South with an ineligible USC squad was not quite to par with the Pac-12 North. But those who figured that, conceptually, Utah's team speed or depth were not up to par for such a move, were proven incorrect. Utah, winners of two BCS bowl games in the last decade, was Pac-12 ready from its first day in the conference. Now the Utes are raising the stakes a bit.

    Norm Chow, he of the long streak of mediocre offenses, left Utah after just one season to become Hawaii's head coach. That left Kyle Whittingham facing the installation of his third offense in as many seasons. Did he aim for another seasoned, experienced assistant with the wisdom and maturity to guide the Utes through another transition? Or did he throw caution to the wind and go all-in on a young guy he knows really, really well? Whittingham admirably went with the latter, handing the reins to 25-year-old Brian Johnson, quarterback of the 2008 Utah team that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Known as a coach-on-the-field type when he played, he's now simply a coach.
    Johnson has the rare perspective of having coached under Chow last season and having played under the spread attack that Whittingham initially utilized in succeeding Urban Meyer in 2005. He evidently feels comfortable enough with the returning personnel that he is looking at bringing in more aggression and more deep balls than last year's offense attempted. Will the faith pay off?
    As with last season, the answer to that question likely depends on Jordan Wynn. The junior from Oceanside, Calif. and one-time Colorado commit actually succeeded Johnson in a way, starting the final few games of the 2009 season as a true freshman. He showed solid potential through his first season and a half but developed shoulder issues as a sophomore. He battled back, then hurt his other shoulder in the fourth game of the season in 2011 and was shut down. With him, Utah's offense was below average last fall; without him, it was a little worse. He lacked for arm strength last season, but he looked stronger and crisper this spring, even if his stats were only decent in scrimmages.
    In the end, the Utah offense ranked 100th or worse in almost every advanced play-by-play category sans second-quarter performance and big-plays on standard downs. Even in areas where the raw stats were semi-impressive -- running back John White IV rushed for 1,520 yards and 15 touchdowns -- the opponent adjustments tamped down the good feelings. Some of White's best performances came against horrid defenses (he gained a combined 390 yards against Oregon State and Washington State), and he was more effective as a grind-it-out runner than an actual, explosive, all-conference caliber back.
    White does return, however, as do a couple of very interesting backups: four-star sophomore Harvey Langi and four-star junior college transfer Kelvin York. They will be running behind a reasonably experienced line that returns five players with starting experience (51 career starts). Oddly, the line produced two all-conference performers (first-team tackle Tony Bergstrom and second-team tackle John Cullen, both of whom are out of eligibility) despite ranking worse than 100th in both line categories, Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate.
    Chow leaned on the run a bit, in part, because a) the defense didn't need a ton of offensive help, and b) the passing game was less than optimal. Jon Hays, a nondescript junior college transfer, took over when Wynn went down, and while he was able to complete more downfield looks than Wynn, he threw more interceptions and was sacked far more often.
    For the season, Utah ranked 118th in Passing Downs Success Rate+, meaning that if carries by John White IV on first and second down netted only three yards instead of seven, the drive was effectively over. The hope is that a healthy Wynn, combined with what is now a wonderfully experienced receiving corps, can stretch the defense out enough to open up holes for White. DeVonte Christopher, targeted by almost twice as many passes as anybody else in 2011, returns for his senior season, as do Luke Matthews and Reggie Dunn (Combined: 68 targets, 32 catches, 474 yards) and intriguing sophomore Dres Anderson who had a lovely spring. Throw in a pair of four-star sophomores -- receiver Kenneth Scott and tight end Jake Murphy -- and you've got impressive depth. But "depth" only matters if its quality depth; the onus is on both Wynn to show he has the shoulder strength to get the ball downfield and the supporting cast to show they can provide interesting threats opposite Christopher.
    In all, the offense certainly has some potential -- Wynn seems healthy, there is four-star talent throughout the skill position lineup, and the line is big and experienced -- but the bar should remain rather low. An offense should only be expected to improve so much after ranking 95th in Off. F/+ last fall.

    Any offensive improvement would be welcomed by a defense that played good enough to win 10 or 11 games but was held back. In Utah's five losses, the Utes averaged just 13 points per game; they were 8-0 when scoring more than 14 points. Without a couple of starters, the Utah line regressed a bit (from third to 39th in Adj. Line Yards, from 17th to 51st in Adj. Sack Rate), but the secondary picked up the slack, improving from 49th to 19th in Passing S&P+ and from 47th to 22nd on passing downs despite a mediocre pass rush.
    This season, a strength could become a weakness and a weakness a strength. The top two linebackers from an outstanding unit, middle linebacker Chaz Walker and rover Matt Martinez, are both gone, as is backup J.J. Williams. Strongside 'backer Trevor Reilly (nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles) does return, and youngsters like Jared Norris, V.J. Fehoko and L.T. Filiaga earned rave reviews this spring, but it's still fair to assume regression at linebacker.
    That could be countered, however, by improvement up front. Despite the loss of three of the top four ends, junior Joe Kruger is huge (6'7, 275 pounds) and intriguing, and high-three-star sophomore Nate Fakahafua showed promise this spring. And with an extra year of experience, tackles Star Lotulelei and Dave Kruger (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss, 44.5 tackles) could thrive, especially when joined by enormous four-star junior college transfer Junior Salt. The line probably won't be as good as it was two years ago, but a return to the Adj. Line Yards Top 20 is a distinct possibility.
    Despite regression, opponents knew they couldn't really run the ball well against the Utes, and they didn't try very often -- opponents rushed only 52 percent of the time versus Utah on standard downs (national average: 60 percent). This played right into the hands of a surging secondary. Led by aggressive cornerbacks Ryan Lacy, Conroy Black, Reggie Topps and Mo Lee (combined: 10 interceptions, 23 passes broken up) and young safeties Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe, the Utah secondary both made plays and prevented them in 2011.
    Considering that, from the above list, only Black is gone, one should expect the pass defense to at least hold steady. By all accounts, this looks like another Top 25 defense (the fourth in all) for fourth-year coordinator Kalani Fifita Sitake.
    Defining Success

    For what it's worth, the schedule contributes nicely to the high level of optimism. Utah plays only two opponents projected better than 55th (BYU and USC), and both must visit Rice-Eccles Stadium. If the Utes truly are the Top 35 team they are projected to be, then the wins could add up. Still, trips to Utah State, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Colorado are too tricky for Utah to roll through the slate with one loss or fewer, so I'm going to set the success bar at nine wins. Take out BYU, slip up twice on the road (and to USC), and you've more than established yourself as the No. 2 program in the Pac-12 South.

    Naturally, there is plenty of room for skepticism when it comes to Utah and high expectations. Jordan Wynn still needs to prove in a real game that he has the arm strength and decision-making ability to lead a strong Utah offense, and none of the other offensive units were particularly impressive last fall. (Even if you scoff at the advanced stats and consider John White IV an elite back, that's still only one of three units; there is little defending the struggles of the offensive line or receivers not named DeVonte Christopher last year.)
    Still, with another strong defense, another Top 25 special teams unit, and potentially the most favorable schedule in the Pac-12, you don't really have to trust the offense to expect quite a few wins for the Utes this fall. If the offense does improve -- if White truly establishes himself as an elite back, if Wynn proves his allegedly high ceiling, etc. -- then a season with double-digit wins is not only a possibility; it is of high probability.
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