Today the ESPN and Blue Ribbon Yearbook released their MWC and I was reading the Ute preview and I am not bragging, but this excellent publication and I had the same opinion. I was reading through and wondering if they actually read my thoughts. I believe the Utes will have a good chance to win 1o games and be as good as they were the year before they went to the Fiesta Bowl. Plus I believe the Utes have the deepest WR corp and the best play maker in the league with WR Brent Casteel the Utes need to get the ball more in anyway possible. The Utes finally have a QB to run the option properly this was just amazing how my views and opinions are so similar to a national pay only publication. Read on for the preview
COACH AND PROGRAM
Succeeding a coach that brings a program to unprecedented heights isn't an easy task. Expectations are raised, sometimes unreasonably so, and success becomes assumed by some. Kyle Whittingham took over the Utah program in the long shadow cast by Urban Meyer's glorious two-year run that was capped by 12-0, Fiesta Bowl championship season in 2004 and has made the transition as smoothly as possible.
Whittingham's record, 15-10, isn't gaudy, but few doubt the quality of his work. His first team, which had to replace eight seniors and quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, closed the year with a rush, finishing 7-5 and winning the Emerald Bowl. In 2006, Utah, despite playing without All-MWC quarterback Brian Johnson, who sat out the season with a torn ACL, won four of its last five, including an Armed Forces Bowl victory.
Whittingham deftly guided the Utes through Meyer's departure and took a pair of good but far from great teams to successful, bowl-winning seasons. After a transition period after the success of 2004, the Utes are poised to make a run at another 10-win season and possibly the MWC crown.
Utah, a bowl team each of the last four seasons, returns 10 offensive starters, including Johnson, and its vaunted spread attack will strike fear into defenses. The Utes were far from meek last season, averaging 27.9 points and 368 yards per game, but they lacked the running game necessary to make the spread attack hum.
The graduated Brett Ratliff threw for 2,796 yards and 23 touchdowns, but his inability to run the ball -- 60 yards, 2.7 yards per carry -- limited the offense.
"In the spread attack we employ, it's huge to have a quarterback that has mobility," Whittingham said. "It's imperative. Last year Brett Ratliff was an excellent pocket guy for us and did a nice job throwing the football, but to really make this offense go, you need that dynamic quarterback that is a run threat."
Johnson, despite a year off, will provide that threat.
The test for Whittingham, Meyer's defensive coordinator before his promotion, will be bringing the Utes' defense to a level comparable to that of the offense. Utah returns just five starters from a unit that ranked third in the MWC in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) but surrendered points in bunches in losses. Utah didn't allow fewer than 31 points in any of its five losses.
Despite the questions, Whittingham is confident his defense will be strong.
"They are talented guys," he said. "As long as you are inexperienced and talented, you can survive. If you are inexperienced and untalented, you've got a major problem."
With road games at Oregon State and Louisville and a home date against UCLA, all by Oct. 5, Utah will have a good idea where it stands before getting into the teeth of MWC play. On paper, this is the Utes' best team since 2004, but the schedule, which also includes games at TCU and BYU, is probably the toughest in program history.
The Utes, who had been to consecutive bowls just once in program history (1992-94) before their recent run, are ready to extend their stay at or just below the national radar. Though the public's awareness of Utah varies from season to season, the same can't be said of NFL scouts, who are aware of the talent that has propelled the program's renaissance. The Utes have had at least two players drafted every year this decade, except 2004.
Whittingham may never be the dynamic presence Meyer was, but that's no crime. Utah is one of the premier programs in the MWC and should remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Optimism abounds in Salt Lake in large part because of the return of Brian Johnson (6-1, 205). The junior has everything a quarterback needs in the spread offense -- smarts, athleticism and a good arm. Johnson is also 100 percent healthy.
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He tore an ACL in the 10th game of the 2005 season -- a 31-27 loss to New Mexico -- and had surgery in December that forced him to redshirt last season. Before the injury, John-son, who played sparingly in the Utes' magical 2004 run, was enjoying a breakout season. He finished No. 1 in the MWC and No. 4 in the nation in total offense (337 ypg), piling up 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air and 478 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. He also completed 63.6 percent of his passes and threw just seven interceptions.
Despite missing the final two-plus games, Johnson still earned second team all-conference honors and left little doubt that he was a worthy heir to Smith's throne.
Odd as it may sound, the timing of Johnson's injury will be beneficial to the 2007 team. Johnson, who was healthy enough to return at the midway point of last season, will be 20 months removed from surgery when the season opens. Whittingham confessed to being tempted to play Johnson last year after consecutive losses to Wyoming and New Mexico, but he resisted the urge.
"We erred on the side of caution," Whittingham said. "We are thinking long term with him. We didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize Brian's future."
The red-shirt year gave Johnson, just 18 years old at the start of his sophomore season, a year to mature physically. He has added 15 pounds of muscle since he arrived on campus and capped off a strong spring by going 7-of-8 for 145 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
"Brian is 100 percent," Whittingham said. "He's not even wearing the brace anymore. There is no swelling, no soreness. It's as good as new."
While Johnson's play is expected to be one of the team's driving forces, the Utes believe they have a quality backup in senior Tommy Grady (6-7, 235). Grady, who started his career as Jason White's backup at Oklahoma, doesn't have Johnson's mobility, but he has a powerful arm. He was 7-of-14 for 102 yards and a touchdown in 2006, though he threw three interceptions.
Grady bolstered Whittingham's confidence in him by going 11-of-12 for 151 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Sophomore Chad Manis (6-5, 210), a transfer from Cerritos College, should be the third quarterback. Manis, one of the nation's top 100 junior college players, passed for 1,389 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 272 yards in his only season at Cerritos.
Darryl Poston (5-11, 200) is one of the NCAA's rarest of commodities -- a seventh-year senior. A former high school All-American, Poston initially signed with USC in 2001 and played as a freshman, but each of his first four seasons were either reduced or eliminated by injury. After missing the majority of 2002 and all of 2003 with a back injury, Poston transferred to Utah in 2004 only to suffer a season-ending knee injury after one game.
Poston's almost unbelievable run of injuries came to an end in 2006. He played all 13 games and rushed for a team-leading 553 yards. He won his biggest battle in January when the NCAA granted him a seventh year. Poston missed the end of spring practice with a cracked bone in his foot but was expected to make a full recovery.
Poston, who Whittingham calls a home-run threat, isn't a foregone conclusion to be the opening game starter.
Highly touted junior Matt Asiata (6-0, 235), a transfer from Snow (Utah) College, will arrive on campus in the fall and is expected to compete for immediate playing time. Asiata rushed for 1,365 yards and 15 touchdowns last year at Snow.
Juniors Darrell Mack (6-0, 219) and Ray Stowers (6-0, 223) will also compete for time. Mack rushed for 173 yards on 43 carries. The Utes' depth at running back suffered a minor blow when Mike Liti was forced to give up the game because of injuries. The once promising Liti's career was plagued by injuries. He graduated with a degree in electronic journalism in May and when he found out his surgically repaired knee wouldn't be 100 percent at the start of fall practice, he opted to move on.
The spread offense isn't overly dependent on the traditional running back, but Utah's backfield should be improved.
"We feel like we have a stable of very good backs," Whittingham said. "There should be great competition this fall to see who gets the majority of the work load."
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The Mountain West's best and deepest group of wide receivers resides in Salt Lake, providing Johnson with a host of targets. The Utes return their top six receivers, all of whom caught at least 17 passes.
The team's most dangerous weapon is junior Brent Casteel (5-10, 193), who caught 39 passes for 600 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns. The lightning quick Casteel was also second on the team with 262 yards rushing, and he will likely carry the ball more than 51 times this season.
"He is our slash guy," Whittingham said. "You will see him in the backfield plenty of times. He's a hybrid -- part wide receiver, part running back. He's a guy that we want the ball in his hands. I'd like to see him get 20 touches a game, that's the type of weapon he is."
Despite Casteel's physical gifts, he isn't Utah's most prolific receiver. That honor goes to senior Derek Richards (5-11, 175), who caught 60 passes for 717 yards and six touchdowns. The former walk-on has been more of a possession receiver, averaging 11.9 yards per catch, but he has 4.4 speed.
Senior Brian Hernandez (6-0, 183) was second on the team with 47 catches, gaining 424 yards. The status of junior Marquis Wilson (5-11, 170), who caught the team's longest pass, a 57-yard touchdown against BYU, was uncertain heading into the summer. Wilson had 25 receptions for 357 yards in 2006 but was suspended indefinitely after being charged with drunken driving and possession of alcohol by a minor.
Juniors Brandon Godfrey (6-3, 197) and Freddie Brown (6-3, 207) give the Utes' receiving corps good size. Godfrey caught 22 passes for 360 yards, good for a team-best 16.4 yards per catch. Brown reeled in 17 passes for 196 yards.
The Utes also return their top two tight ends, senior starter Matt Sims (6-1, 251) and junior Colt Sampson (6-4, 250). The duo combined to catch seven passes last season and the spread offense isn't likely to make them a featured target anytime soon, but both block well.
The Utes should be one of the MWC's best up front, returning four starters off a solid offensive line. The hole the Utes have to fill is a big one -- first team All-MWC tackle Tavo Tupola -- but the talent and depth to do so are on the roster.
Anchoring the line will be senior Jason Boone (6-4, 300), who is making the move from right tackle to left, protecting Johnson's blind side. Boone, who has the lowest body fat (18 percent) of any Utah lineman, will be entering his third year as a starter and didn't allow a sack last season.
Playing alongside Boone will be left guard Zane Beadles (6-4, 312), who enjoyed a standout freshman campaign.
Senior Kyle Gunther (6-4, 304) returns for his second year as the team's starting center. Gunther missed the last several practices of the spring to have his ankle scoped, but the procedure shouldn't impede his summer work.
Junior Robert Conley (6-1, 316) will be an all-conference candidate in his third year as a starter. Massive sophomore Dustin Hensel (6-7, 322) earned the line's only vacancy at right tackle in the spring.
Utah will have depth along the line as well, led by senior Jeremy Inferrera (6-3, 296), the top reserve a year ago. If Hensel struggles, Inferrera would be next in line to take over.
Redshirt freshmen Walter Watts (6-2, 300), Caleb Schlauderauff (6-5, 300) and Zane Taylor (6-3, 305) have shown promise as well.
Junior Louie Sakoda (5-10, 178), the MWC's co-special teams player of the year, could be one of the nation's best. He was 16-of-20 on field goals last season, including a perfect 4-of-4 in a MVP performance at the Armed Forces Bowl.
Sakoda, whose longest field goal was 45 yards, made all 43 PATs and his 91 kicking points were the second most in school history.
Sophomore Ben Vroman (5-11, 187) will handle kickoff duties.
Utah has had a first-team All-MWC defensive lineman for six consecutive years, but some of the team's biggest holes, literally and figuratively, are along the line.
Gone are massive tackle Kelly Talavou, a first team all-conference choice, and nose guard Pau Soliai, a second-team all-league performer and fourth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins. Talavou and Soliai were a big reason Utah's defense allowed a paltry 3.1 yards-per-carry.
Whittingham has had five defensive linemen drafted and four signed as free agents in his time at Utah, and he believes his 2007 crop has the talent to get the job done. One reason for optimism is senior nose guard Gabe Long (6-3, 290). Long, who "dropped into our laps," Winningham said, joined the team the second week of last season after academics prevented him from enrolling at Arizona.
Long was productive when he was on the field, registering 23 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks in a reserve role.
Sophomore Kenape Eliapo (6-0, 303) has gained 13 pounds in the last year and appears poised to take over the tackle position. Eliapo played in 10 games and had seven tackles, one for loss, and one sack.
The key for Utah, which prefers to play four interior linemen, will be the development of depth. Sophomore Zeke Tuinie-Wiley (6-4, 308) and freshman Neli A'asa (6-2, 300) will fight to be in the rotation, as will freshman Pauli Latu (6-0, 295). Junior Aaron Tonga (6-2, 290), a transfer from Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) College, could be an immediate factor in the rotation.
The Utes have more certainty at the two end positions. Senior Martial Burnett (6-3, 262) is one of the league's most disruptive players. Burnett was second in the MWC with 10.5 tackles for loss, had 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last season. He should be an all-conference caliber performer. Senior Alex Puccinelli (6-2, 255), who could start in the team's nickel package, is Burnett's backup.
Junior Greg Newman (6-4, 260) will have to hold off a fierce challenge from sophomore Loa Misi (6-3, 263), who transferred at mid-year from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, to earn the starting job opposite Burnett. Newman played in all 13 games a season ago and had 11 tackles.
Freshman Paul Kruger (6-5, 235), who returned after a two-year Mormon mission, was one of the spring's most pleasant surprises and could earn time as well.
On a defense hit hard by graduation, Utah's linebackers return largely intact, led by second team all-conference selection Joe Jianonni (6-0, 235), a senior. The hard-nosed Jianonni had 92 tackles, including eight for loss, four sacks and an interception last season.
"He's the consummate middle linebacker as far as his mentality," Whittingham said. "He's a nasty player. He's not a cheap shot guy, but he's got that mean streak. All he does is make tackles."
Jianonni's chief backup will be sophomore Mike Wright (6-2, 225).
At the 'Stud' linebacker position, senior Malakai Mokofisi (6-2, 243) is the incumbent starter, but he will be pushed by fellow senior Kyle Brady (6-1, 234). Mokofisi started every game the Utes didn't open in a nickel package last season, finishing with 38 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and an interception. Brady was actually more productive coming off the bench, registering 46 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, four pass breakups and a recovered fumble.
Utah will replace rover linebacker J.J. Williams, who left for a two-year Mormon mission after a standout freshman campaign, with a familiar face. Sophomore Stevenson Sylvester (6-2, 210), who opened last year as the starting rover only to lose the spot to Williams after an early season ankle injury, will move back into the lineup.
Redshirt freshman Matt Martinez (6-0, 230) will work for time behind Sylvester.
Utah's greatest area of uncertainty is its secondary. Four-year starter and consensus All-American Eric Weddle has taken his considerable talent to the NFL, and three of the team's top four corners graduated, too. Weddle, a two-time MWC Defensive Player of the Year and a second-round pick of the San Diego Chargers, will be nearly impossible to replace. He tied for fifth in the nation with seven interceptions in 2006 and recovered three fumbles.
It's difficult to imagine the Utah secondary, which led a defense that ranked 15th in the nation in interceptions (17), not taking a step back. Whittingham believes in the talent he has, but inexperience is a big concern.
The unit's two returning starters , junior Brice McCain (5-9, 189) and senior Steve Tate (5-11, 195), have played more downs than everyone else in the secondary combined. McCain started every game at left corner in 2006, finishing with 28 tackles, five passes broken up and an interception.
Starting opposite McCain will be sophomore Sean Smith (6-3, 217), the spring's breakout performer. Smith, who played all 13 games last year and caught one pass as a wide receiver, made the switch to cornerback in the spring and was a revelation. His size and speed make him a potential standout.
"He was very impressive this spring," Whittingham said. "We think he is a special guy. He has a lot to prove on game day, but what he's done in practice is outstanding."
Sophomore Elijah Wesson (5-11, 175) will be the starting nickel back, a package often employed. The Utes hope at least one among the trio of redshirt freshman Mookie Mur-phy (5-9, 167) and sophomores Justin Jones (5-10, 170) and R.J. Stanford (5-11, 180) emerge to provide depth.
Tate, a free safety, had an outstanding junior campaign, making a team-leading 102 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception. He is a legitimate all-conference candidate.
Sophomore Joe Dale (5-11, 197) will be the starting strong safety. Dale, a true sophomore, is short on experience but he turned heads with his play in the spring.
"Joe Dale may be the most improved player on our football team from last fall," Whittingham said. "He did a nice job this spring and solidified that spot."
Junior Deshawn Richard (6-1, 192), a mid-year transfer from Victor Valley (Calif.) College, hopes to push Dale in the fall.
Louie Sakoda will handle punting duties as well. He averaged 44 yards per punt last season, second in the Mountain West and 13th in the country, and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 30 times.
Brice McCain did a good job returning kicks in 2006, averaging 22.4 yard per return and the explosive Brent Casteel will also be available. Marquis Wilson did an outstanding job returning punts (11.2 ypg) but if he is unavailable, Hernandez will likely assume the responsibility.
The Utes' punt coverage team was the second best in the nation in 2006, allowing a meager 2.37 yards per return, which made the team's net punting average (41.58) the best in the country.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Grading the Utes
On paper this is Utah's best team since the 2004 squad went undefeated. Johnson, nearly two years removed from the knee injury, will be the league's most feared quarterback and he might have as many quality receivers at his disposal as anyone in the nation. There are questions in the backfield, but the spread offense isn't completely reliant on the tailback for rushing big yards.
The defense has substantial questions, particularly in an unproven secondary, but Whittingham's forte is defense. The unit isn't likely to be great, especially early, but should im-prove as the season goes along.
Utah's biggest obstacle will be overcoming a brutal schedule. Four of the team's five toughest games, including match-ups against fellow conference favorites TCU and BYU, are on the road. Trips to Oregon State and Louisville and a home date with UCLA should steel the Utes for a run at the league title.