Today’s fifth installment in our series on Pac-12 spring football focuses on Utah.
Starters returning – 15 (8 offense, 7 defense), plus PK Andy Phillips and P Tom Hackett.
Refresher on 2013 – Utes had a wildly uneven first half of the season, losing a disheartening 51-48 game to Oregon State in overtime, bouncing back to beat BYU, dropping a seven-point game to Oregon State and then upsetting Stanford. But then came a five-game losing streak punctuated by discovery of a pre-existing brain condition in QB Travis Wilson, and the Utes ended 5-7 and out of the bowl picture for a second straight year.
Coaching changes – Kyle Whittingham made a key offensive switch, importing fired Wyoming coach Dave Christensen (former Washington player) as offensive coordinator and demoting veteran Dennis Erickson to running backs coach. Whittingham also named a new offensive line coach, Jim Harding, and hired as WRs coach Yakima product Taylor Stubblefield (ex-Purdue), who takes his fifth job in five seasons.
Spring concerns: Adjusting to Christensen’s uptempo offense, sorting out the quarterback picture, and answering several defensive questions, including at linebacker.
Developments: Wilson was the only QB who wasn’t “live” for at least segments of some spring work, as he comes back from last year’s mid-season diagnosis of a brain condition . . . Utes don’t expect final clearance until July, but indications are Wilson will be good to go . . . RS freshman Conner Manning was listed as No. 2 at end of spring, with Adam Schulz, who took over in Wilson’s absence last year, third . . . a wild card in the fall will be Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson (6-1, 199), expected to graduate this month and be available to the Utes . . . Salt Lake Tribune said Utah appeared to use two TEs less and two backs more this spring . . . Bubba Poole looks to be the starter at RB, with Devontae Booker (former WSU signee who ended up in junior college) and Troy McCormick also vying for time . . . TE Westlee Tonga had a good spring in a return from injury . . . DE Trevor Reilly leaves a big hole after an 8.5-sack, 16-TFL season . . . LB was thinned by an ACL injury to Jacoby Hale, whom Utes hope to have back by their first league game . . . and Miami transfer Gionni Paul suffered a broken foot, further depleting LB; hope is for Paul to be ready by the start of the season . . . but LB position received a boost from Marcus Sanders-Williams, who ran for 73 yards in one scrimmage, then was converted to LB . . . Brian Blechen, who has started 35 games, returned after missing 2013 with knee tendinitis, and figures to play mostly at safety, but could see time at LB . . . Eric Rowe has started at CB for three years, but has made a tentative move to safety . . . eight different players switched positions . . . OL Jeremiah Poutasi, who played at near 350 pounds last season, is about 30 pounds lighter . . . In Phillips and Hackett, Utes could have a dynamic pair of specialists . . . Utah had a stunning 18-takeaway deficit in the interception department alone, getting picked 21 times and intercepting only three balls. They don’t return a player who had one . . . they were 21-3 in Mountain West games immediately preceding the move to the Pac-12, and 9-18 since in the new league.
Spring game: In a game notable for offense and many starters who sat out merely to avoid more injuries, the Red team beat the White, 28-27, as Booker ran for 103 yards on 19 carries, Wilson completed seven of 12 for 116 yards, and Alex Whittingham, son of the coach, had 12 tackles for the winners.
Quotable: Whittingham, on the Christensen-Erickson coaching move – “I had the opportunity to work together with Dave at Idaho State, and ever since then, I’ve been impressed with what he’s been able to do on the offensive side of the ball. I wasn’t necessarily set on a change until Dave became available.”
2014 schedule: In what looms as a key season for Whittingham’s future, Utes host Fresno State Sept. 6 and go to Michigan two weeks later. The game against WSU Sept. 27 might be a must for the Utes, who miss Cal and Washington.