Tom Smart, Deseret News
Well, now that 2010 is behind us and we are onto 2011, it should be quite an interesting year on the hill for the University of Utah.
The year begins with the Runnin' Utes trying to find their form as they head into their final season of Mountain West Conference basketball play. Jim Boylen's 7-7 team begins league play tonight against Air Force (9-4) at Clune Arena.
Boylen and his staff say they are extremely close to being where they need to be to compete at a high level in the MWC. What's needed now more than anything for the Utes is a complete game, rather than good halves or stretches of good basketball.
One thing is for certain this year — there are no gimmes in the league this season. The top four teams in the MWC are outstanding, but the next five teams are all competitive, too.
The first five games and 21/2 weeks of the new year will be big for the Runnin' Utes, with home games against San Diego State, BYU and New Mexico, and roadies with Air Force and Wyoming.
Coaches like to say "the slate is clean" when conference play begins, and the Utes need to take advantage of this to take that next step as 2011 begins.
The season is over for the Utah football team after falling to Boise State in Las Vegas two weeks ago, but things are just beginning to get interesting with Kyle Whittingham's team.
Many of these storylines center on the offensive side.
Whittingham talked about evaluating all aspects of his football team on the postgame show after the Boise State game, but he returned to the offense numerous times.
Kyle talked glowingly about the Broncos' offensive philosophy, saying he watched them as often as he could throughout the season. Utah clearly struggled offensively against better competition in the latter part of the season, and it was certainly more than just injury issues with quarterback Jordan Wynn's shoulder.
I know that many people are calling for staff changes at Utah, but I don't see that happening.
Whittingham is an extremely loyal guy and his team just finished a 10-3 football season. I doubt there will be major changes on the personnel side, but look for some changes philosophically with the Utes.
Here are my three biggest questions heading into the offseason:
1. How quickly can Wynn's shoulder heal? Following surgery, his rehab is scheduled to be in the six-month range. He will certainly miss spring ball, but when will he be back throwing and ready to play?
2. Who will be Utah's go-to running back next season? Tauni Vakapuna and Beau Burton are the only returning backs with any real game experience, and most of that came in mop-up time. Lucky Radley redshirted this season. Perhaps the most likely candidate is John White, a JC transfer from Harbor View CC in the Los Angeles area. White rushed for 1,491 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
3. Who replaces Brandon Burton? On Monday, Burton announced he will bolt for this year's NFL draft. He has been projected by some draft services as a late first-round or second-round draft choice. That means both starting corners, Burton and Lamar Chapman, will need to be replaced.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show on ESPN 700 AM.
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