Utah football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Utes, best players and season prediction.
What You Need to Know About the Utah Offense
As the Utes attempt to ignite a methodical offense in 2016, they’re facing a good-news, bad-news scenario. On the one hand, they have continuity at coordinator for the first time in eight years.
However, on the other, veteran QB Travis Wilson and star RB Devontae Booker must be replaced. Utah likes its options in the running game, namely Joe Williams and Troy McCormick. Wilson’s successor, though, is unknown as veteran Brandon Cox, JUCO transfer Troy Williams and rising rookie Tyler Huntley prepare to compete in Round 2 of their quarterback battle this summer.
Making matters worse for the passing game, last year’s top three pass-catchers are gone, including leading receiver Britain Covey who’s serving a Mormon mission. The tight ends are deep, converted CB Cory Butler-Byrd has settled into the slot and the team is gassed by the return of 6-5 senior Tim Patrick, who missed all of 2015 following an awful leg injury.
The O-line will be the strength of the offense, though a spring knee injury to Hiva Lutui has created a vacuum at center. The Utes are committed to getting their five best blockers on the field, which could mean moving all-star RT J.J. Dielman inside if blue-chip Snow College transfer Garett Bolles is ready to handle a starting tackle gig.
Biggest Key To The Utah Offense
Backfield in motion. The Utes are going to have a new quarterback and running back now that four-year starter Travis Wilson and all-leaguer Devontae Booker, respectively, have graduated. And while the quarterback situation has yet to be resolved, the staff is confident about Booker’s replacements, Joe Williams and Troy McCormick. Williams ran very well after Booker was injured late in 2015, and McCormick has looked great this offseason after missing all of last year to a knee injury. So great, in fact, that he’s narrowed the depth chart gap on Williams.
What You Need to Know About the Utah Defense
The names change, but the results do not for the Utah D. An example of consistency, Kyle Whittingham’s defense is a unit watches can be set to. So, just because the linebackers are undergoing a clean sweep and young Morgan Scalley has replaced vet John Pease at coordinator does not indicate a decline is on the horizon.
On the contrary. The Utes will be every bit as salty and immovable as they’ve been over the past decade, led by an active, veteran front wall and a sticky collection of pass defenders. Salt Lake City is home to one of the most fundamentally sound defenses in America, winning at the line of scrimmage to stuff opposing runners, flood backfields with traffic and create a bunch of turnovers.
The tone is going to be set with the dynamite rotation of ends Hunter Dimick, Kyle Fitts and Pita Taumoepenu and tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi. And with so much support from the first line of defense, few are worried about the season ahead for the new contributors at the second level, Cody Barton, Sunia Tauteoli and David Luafatasaga.
While the secondary is in great shape, it’ll be interesting to watch the development of Chase Hansen, a converted quarterback looking to succeed Tevin Carter at strong safety.
Biggest Key To The Utah Defense
Linebacker turnover. As usual, the Ute D will be fine, particularly on the first and last lines of defense. Still, there are concerns at linebacker now that standouts Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham have graduated. The encouraging news is that Utah employs two linebackers about 80% of the time to get a nickel on the field. And the team’s top two linebackers, junior Sunia Tauteoli and Cody Barton, appear poised to pick up the slack. Tauteoli, a former Snow College transfer, could be an 85-tackle guy in 2016.
Utah Will Be Far Better If …
the offense can stretch the field more consistently. If the Utes are going to move up a rung in the Pac-12 pecking order, they’ll need more help from an offensive attack that too often lacks much punch. Since joining the conference in 2011, Utah has never ranked higher than No. 9 in yards per play. A year ago, they were dead last and 102nd nationally at just over five yards a pop. This team needs to find ways to spring its best playmakers, which will also create more space for the offensive staple … the ground game.
Best Offensive Player
Senior OT J.J. Dielman. The Utes are going to be rock-solid up front this season, and Dielman is the unit’s most accomplished blocker. He earned a spot on the All-Pac-12 Second Team a year ago, standing out for his ability to create running room for backs Devontae Booker and Joe Williams. Plus, Dielman brings versatility to the front wall. While he’s best suited to remain at right tackle, the staff is considering moving him to center now that starter Hava Lutui has suffered a knee injury that could keep him sidelined until the midpoint of the season.
Best Defensive Player
Junior DT Lowell Lotulelei. In many ways, Lotulelei epitomizes what it means to be a Utah defender. He’s rugged, disciplined and one of the most important cogs of a defense that has allowed less than four yards per carry for the past decade, including the last five as a member of the Pac-12. Big No. 93 is an immovable object, whose ability to hold blocks and command double-teams makes life markedly easier for the linebackers and safeties behind him.
Key Player to a Successful Season
The new quarterback, junior Brandon Cox, junior Troy Williams or true freshman Tyler Huntley. Sure, Travis Wilson was erratic during his tenure as the Utah starter, but he was a gamer who played a lot of football in Salt Lake City, so he won’t be easily replaced. The Utes are staging a three-way quarterback battle, the outcome of which will dictate how far this team can ascend in 2016. Williams, who began his career at Washington, and Cox have the edge in experience, but Huntley has really impressed in his debut out of Hallandale (Fla.) High School.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Utes win at least nine for the third year in a row. Utah has assimilated rather nicely to the Pac-12 following a slow start earlier in the decade. And with momentum and solid play on both lines, there’s no reason for this program to go in reverse. The non-conference schedule isn’t daunting, Southern Utah, San Jose State and longtime rival BYU. Plus, defending Pac-12 champ Stanford is missed and USC and Oregon must travel to Rice-Eccles in the fall.
Sept. 23 vs. USC. The next step for the Utes is winning the South Division. And the Trojans in Salt Lake City for a nationally televised Friday night matchup is a that will provide a major divisional boost to the winner. USC rolled in last year’s meeting, 42-24, handing then-No. 3 Utah its first loss of the year. If the Utes can exact revenge for 2015, it could set the tone for 2016 in a race that for Santa Clara that might not be decided until the final weekend of the regular season.
2015 Fun Stats
– Rushing yards per game: Utah 183.0 – Opponents 108.6
– Sacks: Utah 37 – Opponents 23
– First-quarter scoring: Utah 120 – Opponents 63