2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: Utah

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COACH AND PROGRAM

There was much to be happy about in Salt Lake City after last season. Utah won eight of its final nine games, the victories coming by an average of 17.8 points per game, and capped the season with a 35-32 win against Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, the program’s seventh straight postseason win.

Despite all that success, it must be difficult for the Utes not to look back and wonder what might have been. For as good as October, November and December were, September was equally disastrous. Utah endured a crippling string of skill-position injuries that effectively dashed the team’s grandest dreams before the end of the second game.

The Utes opened the season at Oregon State and got off to a good start, taking a 7-0 lead on a 36-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brian Johnson to star receiver Brent Casteel. But the team’s No. 1 running back, Matt Asiata, broke his leg after just four carries, ending his season. Minutes after throwing the touchdown pass, Johnson separated his right (throwing) shoulder. The injury forced Johnson to the bench and caused him to miss two games, and it hampered him the rest of the season.

In game two, Casteel, who had 600 yards receiving and 252 yards rushing in 2006, tore his ACL, ending his season.

Utah lost the season opener to Oregon State, 24-7, unable to generate any offense in the absence of Johnson and Asiata, and fell 20-12 to Air Force at home the following week. Only a stunning 44-6 pasting of UCLA, with Johnson still sidelined, allowed the Utes to bring anything positive out of the month of September. After the UCLA victory, Utah got hammered, 27-0, at UNLV, a team that has won a total of six games the last three years.

With the offense unable to generate any momentum with backup QB Tommy Grady, Johnson returned in the second half against the Rebels. Johnson started the final nine games and the Utes’ offense was much improved. Utah, which scored 12 points or fewer in three of its first four games, averaged 30.8 points per game in the final nine contests.

Despite the increased production over the final two thirds of the season, the Utah offense wasn’t as explosive as it had been in the past. Johnson’s shoulder never fully recovered, and as a result, Utah’s vaunted spread offense was often put on the shelf in favor of a more conventional attack that helped Johnson avoid punishment.

Using a limited playbook, Utah was seventh in the MWC in total offense (369 ypg) and passing offense (202 ypg).

“We need to improve on offense from last year, everyone understands that,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig told the Salt Lake Tribune. “But we lost our share of key guys, too. I’m not making excuses, but it does have an impact.”

With eight starters back on offense, expect head coach Kyle Whittingham to unleash the spread offense in full for the first time since 2005, when Utah led the MWC and was 12th in the nation in total offense. The Utes return four starting offensive linemen, a 1,200-yard rusher and their second leading receiver, in addition to getting Asiata and Casteel back.

Defensively, Utah was outstanding a year ago, leading the MWC in scoring defense (16.8), pass defense (184 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (96.5). The Utes actually led the na-tion in pass efficiency defense, but the defense was hit hard by the loss of five starters to graduation. Whittingham hasn’t recaptured the magic Urban Meyer brought to Salt Lake in 2003 and 2004, but there is no shame in that. Whittingham’s winning percentage is higher than every previous Utah coach, except Meyer, in the last 60 years and he is 4-3 against BCS teams. The Utes have a program that should produce bowl-caliber teams on an annual basis, and Whittingham is the primary reason. Utah’s biggest problem is, despite all its success, archrival BYU has been even better of late.

Utah has lost to BYU in the final minute in each of the last two seasons, victories that could have made good seasons outstanding. The Cougars will rightfully draw most of the preseason buzz, but Utah will have a chance to grab its share of the early headlines. The Utes open the season against Michigan and new coach Rich Rodriguez. A year ago the Wolverines were flummoxed by Appalachian State’s spread offense and Utah will try to do the same. With Rodriguez, Michigan should be better prepared for the spread, but it will be a high-profile game on the road, giving the Utes a chances to make a huge splash.

Utah’s other substantial nonconference challenge is a Thursday night home game against Oregon State. The nonconference schedule sets up well with TCU and BYU both coming to Utah. On paper, the most difficult road games are at Air Force (but it’s early in the season when the young Falcons will likely be trying to find their bearings) and New Mexico. The Utes will have two weeks to prepare for the Lobos, and Whittingham is 3-0 with a week off between games, winning by an average of 31 points per game.

One game that shouldn’t be overlooked is the Oct. 11 trip to Wyoming. Last year, Utah hammered the Cowboys, 50-0, in a game most famous for Whittingham’s decision to order an onside kick despite leading, 43-0. Wyoming coach Joe Glenn responded with a one-finger salute that drew a rebuke from the league. Both sides will surely try to downplay the episode, but Wyoming, which should be improved, will be looking for its pound of flesh.

QUARTERBACKS

Senior Brian Johnson (6-1, 210) has nearly everything you want in a quarterback running the spread offense. He has great athleticism, an accurate arm, a willingness to compete and tremendous intelligence. The only thing Johnson hasn’t had is good health.

When practice resumes in August, all eyes will be on Johnson and his gimpy right shoulder. He had shoulder surgery in February and was still limited in his ability to throw the ball down the field in the spring, which reduced his reps. If Johnson is healthy, Utah is a threat to anyone on its schedule and could challenge BYU for the conference crown.

Utah was 1-3 in the games Johnson was most affected by the injury last season and 8-1 upon his return. While his numbers last season — 181-of-272 for 1,847 yards and 11 touch-downs — were respectable, he was nowhere near his best. Johnson’s lack of arm strength was a factor in throwing 10 interceptions, and he typically avoided running the ball.

Johnson appeared on his way to a star-studded career after throwing for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore replacing Alex Smith. But in the 10th game of the 2005 season, he tore his ACL against New Mexico. Whittingham opted to redshirt him in 2006 to assure a complete recovery. Less than two quarters into his comeback, Johnson suffered the shoulder injury against Oregon State.

Is Johnson unlucky or injury prone? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining Utah’s 2008 fortunes. Without Johnson in 2006, the Utes had to dial back their spread attack because of quarterback limitations, and the same held true last season after the injury. As a sophomore, Johnson averaged 13.7 yards per completion. In 2007 that number plunged to 10.2 yards per completion.

Utah hasn’t got to use its entire playbook since Johnson was healthy in 2005, and, not coincidentally, the Utes led the MWC in total offense that season. If Johnson is healthy, and it won’t take long to find out with the season-opening trip to Ann Arbor, Utah will be much more formidable.

If Johnson is limited, sophomore Corbin Louks (6-0, 185) is a competent backup and the heir apparent for the job. Louks burned his redshirt last season, entering games in running situations, thereby protecting Johnson from possible injury. He finished the season with 162 yards rushing on 33 carries. Louks played in 10 games last season, completing 5-of-8 passes for 41 yards and two touchdowns.

Louks continued to impress with his feet in the spring, despite missing the spring game with a concussion suffered in a scrimmage. The next step will be improving his accuracy throwing the ball.

Sophomore Chad Mannis (6-5, 225) is third on the depth chart.

RUNNING BACKS

Amid the early season carnage in 2007, senior Darrell Mack (6-0, 219) emerged as a star. Mack entered the 2007 season with every intention of redshirting — he sat out the Oregon State game — but Asiata’s injury changed everything. Mack moved into the starting lineup against UCLA and finished with 1,204 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, good enough to earn second-team All-MWC honors.

At one point Mack reeled off five consecutive 100-yard games, including a career high 163 yards in a nationally televised win at Louisville. There was little reason to expect Mack’s production — he had rushed for a total of 320 yards his first two seasons — but he took advantage of an opportunity when it was presented to him.

Whether Mack piles up big numbers in 2008 remains to be seen. Matt Asiata (6-0, 235), who transferred from Snow College, will look to reclaim the job, and, assuming the junior’s knee is fully healed, he figures to steal a few carries.

The Utes also have senior Ray Stowers (6-0, 223) and freshman Eddie Wide (5-10, 190) competing for time. Stowers was impressive at times last season, gaining 261 yards on just 47 carries (5.6 ypc), including a 123-yard effort against Colorado State. It will be difficult for Mack, Asiata and Stowers, all backs of similar size, to earn consistent playing time.

Wide is a player who could emerge. The spread offense isn’t reliant on a single back, grind-it-out approach, and players like Wide, who relies on elusiveness and speed, could be a good fit. No matter how the carries are distributed, Utah has options in the backfield and should boast a strong running game.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The return of Brent Casteel (5-10, 193) is vital to the Utes’ receiving corps, and he was near 100 percent in spring practice. Casteel is the type of hybrid performer so important to the spread offense. He’s listed as a receiver, but he lines up in the backfield and will take more than his share of handoffs.

In 2006, Casteel earned second-team all-conference honors after catching 39 passes for 600 yards (15.3 ypc) and rushing 51 times for 262 yards. Assuming his knee holds up, ex-pect Casteel to average far more than the seven touches per game he got in 2006.

Senior Bradon Godfrey (6-3, 197) returns as a starting receiver as well. Godfrey was second on the team in receiving last year, catching 50 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns. Godfrey is the classic “possession” receiver. He averaged 10.5 yards per catch, and his longest gain of the season was just 27 yards, but he is fearless going across the middle.

The return of Casteel will offset the loss of Utah’s leading receiver in 2007, Derrek Richards, who caught 57 passes for 635 yards. Senior Freddie Brown (6-3, 215) is expected to step into the third receiver spot vacated by Brian Hernandez. Brown, who was among the team’s most improved players this spring, had 20 catches for 219 yards last season.

Junior Elijah Wesson (5-11, 175) and sophomore Jereme Brooks (5-9, 170) are built like Casteel and are a similar type of threat. Brooks enjoyed a good freshman season, rushing 21 times for 138 yards and three touchdowns and catching 15 passes for 183 yards and two scores.

The one thing the Utah receiving corps has lacked is a big-play threat, but that could change with the arrival of two highly touted JUCO prospects. Juniors Aiona Key (6-4, 209) and David Reed (6-0, 184), both of whom are three-star recruits according to Rivals.com, are expected to compete for playing time the moment they enroll in school.

Reed, a transfer from Pasadena City College, caught 111 passes in 10 games as a sophomore and averaged an astonishing 166 yards per game receiving. A first team JC Gridwire All-American, Reed scored 13 touchdowns and broke every single game career reception record at PCC.

Key wasn’t quite as productive at Mount San Antonio College but he wasn’t far behind. He had 80 catches for 1,112 yards and a school-record 17 touchdowns. Key, who originally signed with Boise State and played primarily on special teams during the 2006 season, also blocked four punts in ’07.

An outstanding athlete, Key also started for the Mt. SAC basketball team and averaged 12 points and nine rebounds per game.

If Key and Reed can pick up the offense and develop continuity with Johnson, they will have every opportunity to earn immediate playing time.

Senior Marquis Wilson, who had 18 catches for 285 yards last season, was suspended indefinitely by Whittingham in the spring. Wilson remained in school but his return to the team was uncertain.

Senior Colt Sampson (6-4, 250) tops the depth chart at tight end, though the position isn’t featured in the Utah offense. Sampson caught two passes for 15 yards last year. Sophomore Brad Clifford (6-4, 245) is No. 2 heading out of spring. If the Utes do make the tight end a bigger part of the passing game, junior Dudley LaPorte (6-3, 250), a transfer from Santa Barbara Community College, could be the primary target.

Last season LaPorte led all junior college tight ends with 30 catches for 500 yards and four touchdowns.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The quest to keep Johnson healthy should be greatly aided by one the MWC’s best returning offensive lines. Utah returns four starting linemen, including a pair of all-conference performers. Leading the returnees is senior Robert Conley (6-1, 316), a second team All-MWC choice in 2007. Conley has been a fixture in the lineup at right guard since midway through his freshmen season. Last year he led the team in pancake blocks (40), cuts (28) and knockdowns (38).

Sophomore Neli A’asa (6-2, 305) will back Conley, up but that is the football equivalent of filling in for Cal Ripken in the 1980s. Conley averaged 71 plays per game in 2007.

Joining Conley on the right side is tackle Dustin Hensel (6-7, 320), who did a fine job in his first season as a starter. A former transfer from junior college, Hensel is in his third year with the program and should be improved. Freshman Tony Bergstrom (6-6, 290) is being groomed as Hensel’s possible replacement.

Anchoring the left side of the line is junior tackle Zane Beadles (6-4, 312), a second team all-conference choice a year ago. Beadles is entering his third season as a starter and has the look of a future pro. He moved from guard to tackle in 2007 and was outstanding, finishing with 37 knockdowns, 22 pancakes and 17 cuts. Behind Beadles is sophomore Walter Mitts (6-2, 300). At left guard, the Utes enjoy the benefit of two starting caliber players. Sophomore Caleb Schlauderaff (6-5, 300) took over the job when senior Corey Seluli (6-3, 320) was injured and never relinquished it. Schlauderaff is still young, but he has the physical tools to be a standout. Seluli is unlikely to win back the starting job, but he gives the Utes valuable insurance against an injury up front.

The only true competition heading into the fall is at center, where two-year starter Kyle Gunther must be replaced. Sophomore Zane Taylor (6-3, 305) is atop the depth chart, in part because of his play and in part because of an injury that forced junior Tyler Williams (6-1, 300) to miss most of the spring. Taylor is the presumptive starter, but a strong August by Williams could change that.

KICKERS

The Utes enjoy the benefit of having the nation’s best punter/kickers in senior Louie Sakoda (5-10, 178), a legitimate All-American candidate at both positions. Sakoda was 19-of-22 on field goals in 2007 with a long of 51 yards, earning second team all-conference honors as a place-kicker.

He has made 35-of-42 career field goal attempts and 81-of-83 extra points. Sakoda is the league’s best.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Utah has had a first-team All-MWC defensive lineman for seven consecutive years, a streak kept alive last season by defensive end Martail Burnett, who was lost to graduation. Whether the streak continues remains to be seen, but the Utes don’t lack for talent.

Whittingham moved junior Koa Misi (6-3, 263) and sophomore Paul Kruger (6-5, 255) into the starting lineup against UCLA, and it proved to be an inspired decision. Misi, playing out of position at defensive tackle, finished with 67 tackles, third best on the team, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. Misi will move to left end this season and should be even more disruptive. Kruger, who will again start at right end, became an immediate playmaker, recording 63 tackles, 7.5 TFL, three sacks, three fumble recoveries and an interception. A highly touted quarterback coming out of high school, Kruger moved to defensive end in January of 2007 after returning from a LDS mission, earning freshmen All-America honors from The Sporting News and Scout.com. Senior Greg Newman (6-4, 260) and freshman Derrick Shelby (6-3, 240) are the top reserves at defensive end.

The questions for the Utes are in the interior line. Sophomore Lei Talamaivao (6-2, 290) is expected to replace Misi at tackle. Talamaivao showed flashes last season, recording 14 tackles, including 10 solos, in seven games as a freshman. Senior Aaron Tonga (6-2, 305) also hopes to earn time.

The most experienced returnee inside is junior Kenape Eliapo (6-0, 303), who started two games before relinquishing the job. Eliapo, who played in all 13 games and finished 2007 with 29 tackles, is the presumptive starter at nose tackle.

Utah’s interior depth was hurt when Isley Filiaga, who sat out last season after transferring from BYU, quit the team.

One freshman that could make an impact is four-star recruit David Kruger (6-5, 264), Paul’s brother and one of the nation’s most sought after defensive line recruits. Kruger will have the opportunity to be part of the rotation.

LINEBACKERS

Utah’s greatest area of uncertainty is at linebacker, where a pair of starters must be replaced. Junior Stevenson Sylvester (6-2, 220) returns as the starter at the Rover position and could be poised for an all-conference caliber season. Sylvester was second on the team in tackles in 2007, finishing with 86, including 10 for loss and three sacks.

Sophomore Nai Fotu (6-1, 232) played an increasingly prominent role last season and is the probable starter at the Stud linebacker position. Fotu had 11 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble as a freshman.

Former walk-on Mike Wright (6-2, 230) earned a scholarship in January and might claim the starting job come September. Wright played in 12 games a year ago and was produc-tive, recording 4.5 TFL and three sacks among his 22 tackles.

redshirt freshman Mo Neal (6-2, 220) figures to earn playing time as well and could challenge for a starting job. Sophomores Matt Martinez (6-0, 230) and Jamel King (6-3, 225) and junior Kepa Gaison (5-11, 230) could push for time as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The unquestioned strength of the Utah defense is its secondary. The Utes led the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2007 and they return three starters and nine of their top 10 DBs. The one loss isn’t insignificant — strong-safety Steve Tate led the team in tackles and was a first team all-conference selection — but the secondary should be difficult to throw against.

Leading the returnees is top cover corner Brice McCain (5-9, 189), a senior who earned second-team all-league honors. Utah relies on man-to-man coverage, and McCain, entering his third year as a starter, is very proficient in that regard. He had only one interception last season but he broke up a team high 11 passes.

Starting at the other corner is junior R.J. Stanford (5-11, 180), who performed well in his first season as a starter. Stanford had 33 tackles and two sacks, providing a threat to blitz the quarterback from the perimeter. The reserve corners are freshman Brandon Burton (6-0, 180) and junior Justin Jones (5-10, 170).

Junior Sean Smith (6-3, 217) returns as the nickel back. Smith had 32 tackles last season, led the team with four interceptions and broke up seven passes. Junior Damilyn Tanner (5-10, 175) will back Smith up.

Junior Robert Johnson (6-3, 190), who has a nose for the ball, returns at free safety. Johnson had 44 tackles in 2007 and added three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Senior Deshawn Richard (6-1, 196) is No. 2 behind Johnson.

The loss of Tate is significant, but if junior Joe Dale’s (5-11, 197) play in the Poinsettia Bowl is any indication, he is ready to fill the void. Dale, the projected starter at strong safety, had 12 tackles and a game-clinching interception in Utah’s 35-32 win against Navy, an effort that earned him defensive MVP honors. Dale finished the year with 40 tackles and he also forced and recovered a fumble.

Seniors RJ Rice (5-8, 190) and Terrell Cole (5-11, 190) will compete for playing time in the secondary as well.

PUNTERS

Louie Sakoda was a first-team All-American punter, (FWAA, CBS.Sportsline.com). The senior averaged 44.3 yards per kick in 2007 and pinned 28 kicks inside the 20. For his career, 43 percent of Sakoda’s punts have been downed inside the 20, and 17 have been downed inside the 5-yard line. Sakoda’s is one of the nation’s best.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Sophomore Jereme Brooks (5-9, 170) will take over punt return duties from Derrek Richards, who led the MWC a season ago (14.7).

Brooks will also return kicks, a job he handled on part-time basis in 2007, averaging 22.2 yards per return. Still, Utah was last in the MWC in kickoff-return yardage (19.5 ypr). The Utes’ need work on punt coverage, but they led the MWC in kickoff coverage.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Utes
Unit Grade
Offense B+
Special teams A
Defense B
Intangibles B

If quarterback Johnson is healthy and playing at the top of his game, it’s not inconceivable that Utah could win the MWC title. Realistically, Johnson hasn’t made it through a full season as a starter, suffering the torn ACL in 2005 and the shoulder injury in 2007.

Football is a team sport, but much hinges on Johnson. When he is healthy, Whittingham has the entire offense at his disposal. Louks is dangerous running the ball but has yet to prove he can throw it. Mack and Asiata are both talented running backs and Casteel should provide the hybrid threat the spread attack thrives on.

Defensively, Utah has legitimate concerns in the middle of the line and at linebacker, but there is talent on the roster.

The Utes won nine games last year, and it’s not unrealistic to think they will do the same in 2008. If Johnson can remain in one piece and fulfill the promise he flashed in 2005, the Utes could hit the 10-win plateau.

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