2015 CFB Preview – Utah

    Utah UtesGo to Team Page UtesGo to Selection Page           Utah can breathe again. The program is back among the living. By Rich

    July 1, 2015

     
       

    Utah can breathe again. The program is back among the living.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    The Utes’ nine-win season a year ago could not have come at a better time, for head coach Kyle Whittingham, his players and the entire Block U community. Prior to 2014, the program went 5-7 in back-to-back years, raising concerns whether it can effectively compete in the Pac-12. But last fall represented a crucial turning point that included wins over USC, Stanford, UCLA and Michigan, the latter three on the road.

    Ending the year No. 21 in the AP poll was nice, which will help provide a tailwind and a confidence boost entering the 2015 campaign – at least in theory. There’ll be no time to celebrate, though, because every other South Division team is stockpiling talent and traveling in a decided northerly direction.

    There are also sighs of relief coming out of Salt Lake City that Whittingham is still employed by the program. Despite the on-field turnaround, the climate between the popular coach and his AD, Chris Hill, has been publicly fractious. And the in-house discord and distrust between the athletic program’s two most influential people was only exacerbated when coordinators Dave Christensen and Kalani Sitake left in December for new jobs.

    Sitake, in particular, stings because he remained in the Pac-12 at Oregon State and is a dynamite coach and recruiter. Whittingham responded with stop-gap measures, promoting offensive assistants Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick, and luring defensive coordinator John Pease out of retirement.

    Away from the administrative drama that’s cast a shadow over the program, Utah still has the personnel, even on special teams, to compete at a high level in the South. RB Devontae Booker returning for his senior year provides an enormous lift, and Travis Wilson is about to begin his fourth season as a starting quarterback.

    The blue-collar defense will continue to be among the most challenging to outwork in the conference. Neither a lack of talent nor a lack of heart will prevent the 2015 Utes from furthering the head of steam that was amassed a year ago.

    Utah is back on solid footing. But letting off the gas pedal would be an enormous mistake. It was only two years ago that the Utes were authoring back-to-back losing seasons with the combination of an ever-improving Pac-12 and the ongoing administrative unrest means remaining on track is critical in 2015. The goodwill from last year’s campaign will rapidly disappear if winning isn’t sustained, and both Whittingham and his players are keenly aware of what’s at stake.

    What you need to know about the offense: The Utes improved offensively in 2014, but it was incremental. Not enough. The job of keeping Utah moving in the right direction now belongs to two coordinators, Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick, who assumed the role after Dave Christensen left for Texas A&M. The duo will generally stick to the playbook, seeking balance behind QB Travis Wilson and RB Devontae Booker. Wilson continues to evolve since suffering a near career-threatening neck injury in 2013, but Booker will be the focal point of the attack. He’s one of the most underrated backs in America, so feeding him at least 300 times this fall is a given. Plus, he’ll be running behind a stout line that returns four of last season’s starters. J.J. Dielman is replacing Jeremiah Poutasi at left tackle, while converted defensive tackle Sam Tevi has the inside track on Dielman’s old job. For Utah to become a more efficient and potent offense, though, it must develop more weapons for Wilson the passer to grow. Right now, the Utes are extremely green and marginal on the outside, which could allow defenses to stack the box to stifle Booker.

    What you need to know about the defense: Few defenses in America consistently do more with less than Utah, which is not to say the Utes lack talent. It’s just not at the level of the Pac-12’s premier programs, yet they are always scrappy, well-coached and tough to navigate. Such will be the case in 2015, though vastly underrated coordinator Kalani Sitake elected to take the same position at Oregon State. In his place steps a familiar, yet unlikely, individual, 71-year-old John Pease who last coached five years ago. Pease is being tasked with keeping the Utes oppressive the year after they led the country with 55 sacks. Star DE Nate Orchard must be replaced, as well as all-league DBs Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. But the foundation is in place for this unit to once again be salty. The linebacker trio of seniors Jared Norris, Jason Whittingham and Gionni Paul is among the league’s best, the pass rush remains feisty and DE Jason Fanaika, DT Lowell Lotulelei and S Tevin Carter are set to peak as defenders. If the kids stays healthy, and Pease maintains his fire, Utah will again be among the Pac-12’s most suffocating defenses.

    What to watch for on offense: Travis Wilson’s new targets. The Utes are in solid shape on offense, from a talented backfield to a veteran line. But who in the receiving corps is going to help with the continuing evolution of Wilson as a passer? The graduations of Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay create a power outage on the outside. Kenneth Scott is a sound possession receiver, Tim Patrick is returning from injury and Bubba Poole is moving from running back to slot receiver. But none will take the top off defenses. Fingers are crossed that touted Gavilan (Calif.) College transfer Deniko Carter qualifies academically to be admitted this summer.

    What to watch for on defense: Replacing Nate Orchard. For this campus to remain situated in Sack Lake City, one—or more—Utes will need to offset the enormous production of Orchard, who ranked second nationally with 18.5 sacks. While Hunter Dimick is poised to poised to become the end most worthy of double-teams, a pair of D-line newcomers are planning to provide immediate help. Jason Fanaika has transitioned from outside linebacker, while Kylie Fitts is eligible after transferring from UCLA. Fanaika, in particular, is poised for a breakout year, especially if opponents overcompensate for Dimick on the left side.

    The team will be far better if… the defensive backfield doesn’t get exposed. Although the Utes will once again be salty on D, the secondary is a concern. Even when S Brian Blechen and next-level CB Eric Rowe were on patrol in 2014, Utah still allowed 23 touchdown passes. Now, the unit must replace all the starters, and there’s no guarantee that the pass rush can approach last season’s nation’s-best production. Losing junior CB Dominique Hatfield after he got kicked off the team really, really hurts. That means corner Reginald Porter and safeties Tevin Carter and Jason Thompson have to rock right out of the gate. Carter returns from injury to fulfill his sizable potential, while Thompson is a converted quarterback transfer from Wyoming.

    The Schedule:
    – The Utes will be Jim Harbaugh’s first opponent as the Michigan head coach. The Wolverines will travel to Salt Lake City on the first Thursday of September, looking to avenge last year’s loss in Ann Arbor.
    – There isn’t an FCS opponent—or a pushover of any kind—on this year’s schedule. Besides Michigan, Utah plays two of the Mountain West’s tougher teams of late, Utah State and Fresno State in the Valley.
    – The Utes play just five road games this season. And after returning from Oregon on Sept. 26, they won’t leave Salt Lake City again for almost a month.
    – While the schedule is predictably demanding for a Pac-12 school, the roughest matchups are pretty evenly spaced out. One glaring exception is facing Arizona State and USC on back-to-back weekends, Oct. 17 and Oct. 24.
    – If the Utes are pushing for bowl-eligibility in November, they’ll have the luxury of doing so at Rice-Eccles Stadium. UCLA and Colorado will travel to Salt Lake City to conclude the 2015 regular season.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Utah State. This has become a rivalry game with increased intensity in recent years. The Aggies, eager to make waves against the Pac-12, are getting back their two best players from injury, QB Chuckie Keeton and LB Kyler Fackrell.

    Best offensive player: Senior RB Devontae Booker. Booker could be in an NFL camp right now. Instead, he’s arguably the most underrated back in college football. The linchpin of an attack that prides itself on the ability to run the ball assertively, Booker operates with the determination of an athlete whose career has twice been sidetracked by academic issues. His patience and his work ethic have paid off. And his importance to the ground troops grew even bigger after Bubba Poole shifted to slot receiver and Troy McCormick suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring.

    Best defensive player: Senior LB Jared Norris. In many ways, Norris is the quintessence of a Ute defender; tough, blue-collar and willing to outwork those around him in pursuit of the ball. All Norris wants to do is hit people, which he did plenty in 2014 as the program’s leading tackler. And far more than just a compiler of stats, he’s also one of the team leaders and a defender who sets the example for younger Utes. Norris is the type of student-athlete whose presence will still be felt a couple of years after he’s graduated.

    Key player to a successful season: Senior DE Jason Fanaika. The ability to collapse the pocket with unmatched regularity was a huge reason for Utah’s 2014 uprising. And while the Utes will continue to get after opposing quarterbacks, the degree of pressure won’t be the same now that DE Nate Orchard is in the NFL. At left end, scrappy Hunter Dimick is going to attract all kinds of attention from right tackles. It’s incumbent upon Dimick’s bookend, Fanaika, to build off last fall, when he showed flashes of disruption as a part-time starting outside linebacker.

    The season will be a success if … Utah wins eight. It’s not as if the Utes are incapable of matching last year’s nine victories, but the schedule is daunting once again. Not only is there the usual Pac-12 grind, including cross-division matchups at Oregon and Washington, but Utah plays Michigan, Utah State and Fresno State out of conference. If Kyle Whittingham can get his team to 8-5, a year after going 9-4, it’ll solidify the notion that the Utes can perennially competing in the Pac-12. This team’s road resiliency, along with the veteran backfield, puts an eight-win campaign within reach.

    Key game: Sept. 3 vs. Michigan. After curiously going just 3-3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2014, Utah needs to become a better home team this fall. And that quest begins on the first night on the season with a visit from the Wolverines. Naturally, all eyes will be on Jim Harbaugh, as he makes his debut as the head coach of his alma mater. The Utes must maintain their focus and hold serve amid all the hoopla, because repeating last season’s 6-1 road mark is unrealistic.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Rushing yards per game: Utah 190.4 – Opponents 146.8
    – Sacks: Utah 55 – Opponents 31
    – First-quarter scoring: Utah 106 – Opponents 54

    Players You Need To Know

    1. RB Devontae Booker, Sr.
    Booker’s decision to forego the NFL Draft generated a sigh of relief out of Salt Lake City. He’s the Utes most important athlete, a game-changing playmaker who runs as if he’s channeling his inner Tiki Barber. Booker is decisive between the tackles, always churning for additional yards and deft as a receiver out of the backfield. The 5-11, 212-pound workhorse was named First Team All-Pac-12 for rushing for 1,512 yards and 10 scores on 292 carries, while catching 43 balls for 306 yards and two more scores.

    2. LB Jared Norris, Sr.
    Norris makes a ton of plays and operates with an infectious attitude, despite arriving with minimal fanfare. He’s basically Utah’s Scooby Wright. Norris shed some of his anonymity last year by racking up a team-high 116 tackles, 13 stops behind the line and four sacks to earn All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Not unlike roommate Hunter Dimick, the 6-2, 234-pound Norris is a self-made grinder who plays with the toughness and the emotion that fits this program’s identity exceptionally well.

    3. QB Travis Wilson, Sr.
    Simply returning to the field was a triumph for Wilson whose career was threatened by a 2013 head injury. Sure, he was a little more cautious as a junior, yet still a dangerous weapon as a runner and a passer. The 6-7, 233-pounder used his loping stride to rush for 491 pre-sack yards and five touchdowns. And as a passer, he showed improvement by completing 190-of-313 passes for 2,170 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Provided he plays with more consistency, this could be a special year for Wilson, who has a chance to climb deep into the Utah record books.

    4. P Tom Hackett, Sr.
    Hackett is the unsung hero of the Utah defense, because he’s one of the most effective punters in college football. The one-time walk-on from Australia captured the 2014 Ray Guy Award given to the country’s most complete punter. He’s the total package at the position, averaging 46.7 yards and attempt, while also leading the country in punts inside the opponents’ 10-yard line. The precocious Hackett is an artist with his right foot.

    5. DE Hunter Dimick, Jr.
    Dimick is neither the biggest nor the quickest defensive lineman in the Pac-12, but good luck finding a peer who can outwork him. The blue-collar 6-3, 266-pounder took full advantage of being on the opposite side of the line as superstar Nate Orchard, notching 52 stops, 14.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Dimick is a play-to-the-whistle pass rusher, with the right blend of quickness and handwork to become the leader of the front in 2015.

    6. NT Lowell Lotulelei, Soph.
    As a rookie, Lotulelei took his first big step toward stepping out of the shadow of his older brother, Star, a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2013. Only a few months removed from his LDS Church mission, Lowell earned a starting job—and honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition. Once he got into shape, he played with the trademark Lotulelei strength, leverage and explosiveness, making 33 tackles and four sacks. The 6-2, 310-pounder will be a cornerstone of the D for the next three years.

    7. LB Gionni Paul, Sr.
    Just stay healthy. Everything else will take care of itself. Paul broke his foot in the spring, and then reinjured it in November, shorting a debut in Salt Lake City that was largely promising. The 5-10, 225-pound Miami transfer quickly evolved into a fan favorite for his enthusiasm, energy and closing speed. In only eight games, Paul managed 61 tackles, three stops for loss and a team-high four interceptions. Fingers are crossed that his playmaking ability will be on display for all 12 regular-season games in 2014.

    8. LB Jason Whittingham, Sr.
    The Utes are ecstatic that Whittingham, the coach’s nephew, will be back at full strength this season. He missed two-thirds of 2014 to a wrist injury, and his absence was felt. Despite being 6-2 and 245 pounds, Whittingham is arguably the most athletic member of the front seven, a read-and-react run defender with All-Pac-12 potential. A year after making 81 stops in only 10 games, he was limited to just 20 tackles in five appearances. He’s a safe bet to recapture his sophomore form in 2015.

    9. PK Andy Phillips, Jr.
    Phillips remains a key component of one of the nation’s premier special teams units. More than just a strong leg, he’s also clutch in key moments of close games. A rather remarkable story Philips never played football prior to walking on with the Utes in 2012. In fact, he’s far more prolific on the slopes than on grass, competing from 2007-11 on the U.S. Ski Team. As a sophomore, he nailed 23-of-28 field goals, including both attempts from 50 or longer, to earn First Team All-Pac-12.

    10. DE Jason Fanaika, Sr.
    Fanaika serves a dual-purpose for the Utes; he has the size and strength to play defensive end, but also has the skills to serve as the program’s ‘stud’ linebacker. The 6-3, 270-pound Utah State transfer played both last year in Salt Lake City, making 55 tackles, 9.5 stops for loss and five sacks, while improving as the season unfolded. Now that Fanaika has found his niche within the D as a starting right end, he’s capable of becoming a pass-rushing force at Utah.

    11. WR Kenneth Scott, Jr.
    The steady Scott returns as the best option of a receiving corps lacking big-play pop. He’s more of a possession receiver than a field-stretcher, returning from a season-ending leg injury in 2013 to catch a team-high 48 balls for 506 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. At 6-3 and 208 pounds, Scott has terrific size, runs clean routes and consistently does a nice job snaring the ball away from his body. He’s also a veteran leader who helps maximize the ability of the teammates around him.

    Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham
    11th year: 85-43
    Schedule
    Sept. 3 Michigan
    Sept. 12 Utah State
    Sept. 19 at Fresno State
    Sept. 26 at Oregon
    Oct. 3 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 10 California
    Oct. 17 Arizona State
    Oct. 24 at USC
    Oct. 31 Oregon State
    Nov. 7 at Washington
    Nov. 14 at Arizona
    Nov. 21 UCLA
    Nov. 28 Colorado
    Ten Best Utah Players
    1. RB Devontae Booker, Sr.
    2. LB Jared Norris, Sr.
    3. QB Travis Wilson, Sr.
    4. P Tom Hackett, Sr.
    5. DE Hunter Dimick, Jr.
    6. NT Lowell Lotulelei, Soph.
    7. LB Gionni Paul, Sr.
    8. LB Jason Whittingham, Sr.
    9. PK Andy Phillips, Jr.
    10. DE Jason Fanaika, Sr.

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