Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — So here we sit, some six days from the beginning of the 2011 University of Utah football season starting. A week from now we will know much more about this football team than we do today.
I know that many of you don't believe that Montana State will provide many answers about Kyle Whittingham's football team — and maybe you're right. But I will say that playing anyone not wearing a red or black jersey, especially a quality FCS program like the Bobcats, should give Ute fans at least a few clues to some of the questions that have been lingering through fall camp.
Here are my three biggest remaining questions about this Ute football team.
Place kicking: After six solid seasons where the Utah coaching staff didn't have to worry about field goals and extra points, the place kicker position is up in the air. The battle between Nick Marsh and Coleman Petersen began in the spring and still hasn't been settled.
One day it's Petersen making his kicks and the next it's Marsh. You can tell when the subject is raised with Whittingham that it's been driving him a little nuts. My inkling is that Petersen will end up with the job on opening night. Bottom line? Whittingham just wants some consistency, which hasn't happened yet.
Offensive line: This is another area that the Utah coaching staff hasn't had to worry much about in recent years. While the talent on the first team remains outstanding, it's the experience behind those guys that is the question. Injuries to Sam Brenner, Latu Heimuli and Percy Taumoelau in fall camp have caused some re-shuffling and taxed the depth, but more than anything it's kept the guys that will be protecting Jordan Wynn from getting key reps and working together consistently in the new offense that Norm Chow has been installing.
We have seen the Utah defensive front seven (which happens to be the strength of this year's team) dominate the offensive line through much of fall camp, but that was with the offense missing key pieces on that line. Only time and live game action will tell us if this unit is healthy and ready to run the Norm Chow system.
Cornerbacks: This was my biggest question aside from Wynn's health entering camp almost a month ago. After watching practice almost every day I feel a lot better about the options and abilities of the guys that defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will have out on the islands this fall.
Conroy Black, Ryan Lacy, Reggie Topps, Mo Lee (the surprise of fall camp for me) and Wykie Freeman have all had their moments over the last three weeks. The great unknown for most of these guys is, how will they perform in "real" game action. They will be tested immediately next Thursday night against a quarterback, DeNarius McGhee, who threw for 3,163 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman last season. What they lack in game experience, this cornerback crew certainly makes up for in skill and athleticism.
Here are a few more quick thoughts as we head toward Thursday's season opener.
As mentioned, my surprise of fall camp is Mo Lee. Lee has made the transition from wide receiver to corner seamlessly. Every practice I attended (and I attend most) he was making plays. I expect that Lee will do the same this fall for the Utes.
My freshman to watch is Eric Rowe, the safety from Texas. There's been a lot of talk, and rightfully so, about local product Nate Fakahafua, who will see a lot of time this fall. But Rowe will likely start and play almost every down in the secondary alongside Keith McGill. Rowe is 18 years old, but acts and plays beyond those years. I expect a big freshman campaign, much like Brian Blechen enjoyed last season.
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 Radio 700 AM.
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