Cleat Geeks

2016 Pac 12 Preview: Utah Utes

Pac12IntroPhotoFor the first time in nearly a decade, the South division looks to crown the Pac-12 champion – and this very well could be the year that they do so. The favorite within the division looks to be the Trojans of USC. Despite moving onto their third head coach in five years, the Trojans enter the season with arguably the highest expectations of any team in the conference, and deservedly so. They have all the pieces to make a legit run at a conference championship, but can Clay Helton lead them to glory in his first full season as the headman in LA? The UCLA pose the biggest threat to USC as they return promising sophomore QB Josh Rosen, a QB with #1 pick potential. His talent alone could lead the Bruins to a conference championship. One of the most underrated teams in the country, the Arizona Wildcats are a sleeper to take the conference this season, but will they be able to overcome the likes of USC and UCLA? Kyle Whittingham leads a strong Utah unit year after year, but will their depleted offense be able to keep up with other high-powered offenses in the country? Arizona State has one of the best RB tandem in the country, but their defense still poses as a liability to giving up the big play; they may be a year or two away as Manny Wilkins needs experience under center. Colorado went 1-8 in conference play last season, but they return 16 starters, and experience goes a long way in the college game.

Take a look as we dig deep into the Pac-12 South division. Comment with some predictions of your own for the Utah Utes and if you think Kyle Whittingham can continue to lead this team to success despite a lot of key players gone. Follow @JonValencia_WiB for more Pac-12 updates throughout the of-fseason as we gear up for opening week.

4 – Utah Utes (6-6, 3-6 – SOUTH)

Players to Watch: RB Joe Williams, DT Lowell Lotulelei, S Marcus Williams
Key Departures: QB Travis Wilson, RB Devontae Booker, DE Jason Fanaika

Their fifth season in the Pac-12 proved to be their best thus far. The Utes got off to an extremely strong start which featured wins against the likes of Michigan and on the road at Oregon. Kyle Whittingham is the longest tenured head coach in the conference which will prove to be an asset. Continuity goes a long ways in the college game. However, Whittingham will be forced to insert cohesion back into the offense as he sees a new starting QB under center along with new starters at the skill positions.KyleWhittingham

Of all the teams in the Pac-12, the Utes are the only team without a clear starter under center. A three-headed competition featuring Troy Williams, Brandon Cox and Tyler Huntley commenced this past Spring. Former Huskie, Troy Williams looked to be in the lead until being shutdown for the last couple weeks of Spring due to injury. He has more game experience than the other two combined. Cox is most familiar with the system. Whittingham has raved about true freshman Huntley’s athleticism. He also looked very good in the spring. If I had to take a guess, I’d say Troy Williams will be the starter for the season opener, but I’d expect to see all 3 QBs throughout 2016. All of them bring something different to the table.

As if finding a QB hasn’t been tough enough, the Utes will have to replace one of the best RBs in school history as Devontae Booker got drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 4th round. Utah will be forced to replace the workhorse of their offense and tons of production. Senior Joe Williams will be inserted as the new starter receiving handoffs. Williams rushed for nearly 500 yards in relief of Booker last season and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. He will have a huge role on the offense as the Utes hope he can pick up the slack left behind by Booker.

JoeWilliamsUtahNo major contributors from the WR corps return from last season as reloading the skill positions continues for the Utes. The leading receiver being Tyrone Smith who hauled in only 18 catches last season, none of which went for a TD. He does however, bring great size to the table and have more of an impact in an expanded role. Senior Cory Butler-Byrd will be the speedster over the top for Utah, a former four star recruit.

Any way you slice it, the Utes will be missing a lot on the offensive side of things. They lose their big playmakers from last year and will now be forced to field a whole new supporting cast. On the brightside, they return four of five starters on the offensive line in what is a very sturdy unit. Senior guard Isaac Asiata and tackle J.J. Dielman have All-conference potential. JUCO transfer Garrett Bolles has a chance to occupy the blindside tackle slot. One of the top rated junior college prospects also registered visits to schools like Michigan State and Oregon. The Utes will be very tough and strong in the trenches, as they usually are.

The Utes will rely on their defense this season in order to pull out close, conference battles. They’re extremely tough and skilled up front headlined by potential All-American and 1st round pick Lowell Lotulelei. The interior force is stout against the run and led the Utes to the 6th best run defense last season. He is joined by returning edge starters in seniors Kylie Fitts and Hunter Dimick. Utah has tons of depth on the defensive line and will be among the best run stoppers yet again. In the LB corps they will be forced to replace prized starters such as Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham. Inexperienced Cody Barton and Sunia Tautefoli impressed in the Spring, although the team is very slim depth wise.

In the secondary the Utes boast a playmaking unit. Last season they forced 22 interceptions which led the Pac-12. Junior safety Marcus Williams picked off 5 passes last season and is among the best at the position within the conference. Senior CB tandem Dominique Hatfield and Reginald Porter are disruptive on the outside. Hatfield intercepted 4 passes and Porter compiled 11 passes defended last season. They also have more depth this year as well which should help them improve a 102nd ranked pass defense from last season.

One of the toughest teams to read in the Pac-12 this season are the Utah Utes. Always a consistently strong team, you don’t know what to expect on the offense where they will be tasked with a mission of replacing their entire skill positions, including under center where they are still without a clear starter. They’re tough in the trenches which should give them the edge in some matchups. Kyle Whittingham is among the most underrated coaches in the country, but I don’t think the Utes are in the position to compete for a conference crown this year – last season was their time to do so. Give them another year or two with a more experienced, established Tyler Huntley under center – along with more experience in the skill positions.

9/1: vs Southern Utah WUtahUtesHelmetHeadress
9/10: vs BYU W
9/17: @ San Jose State W
9/23: vs USC L
10/1: @ California W
10/8: vs Arizona L
10/15: @ Oregon State L
10/22: @ UCLA W
10/29: vs Washington L
11/10: @ Arizona State W
11/19: vs Oregon L
11/26: @ Colorado L

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