You look at the season in its entirety and the way we finished, obviously, was a positive. —Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham readily acknowledges there's always room for improvement. Even so, he considers the 2011 season "a good start" in the Utes' transition into the Pac-12.

Utah went 8-5 overall and joined Oregon as the only teams in the conference to end the campaign with a bowl victory. A 4-5 league mark, though, indicates that there's still a lot of work to do.

"I think we learned a lot along the way," Whittingham said, while noting such things as getting familiar with the Pac-12's personnel and schemes. "It was a big change, without a doubt. There's a lot of talent in the Pac-12, most notably the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. It seems like everybody's got exceptional players at those positions. Defensively, you've got your work cut out for you every single week."

To keep up, Whittingham said the Utes need to continue recruiting well and upgrade facilities. Both things, he continued, are in motion.

Finishing the season with wins in five of their last six games, including a 30-27 overtime win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, has given the program good momentum heading into the offseason and the final phase of recruiting.

"You look at the season in its entirety and the way we finished, obviously, was a positive," Whittingham said before noting one exception — a 17-14 setback at home to Colorado on Nov. 25.

The surprising setback wound up costing the Utes a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game against Oregon. The sting, however, was lessened by the bowl triumph in El Paso.

"I think we're pleased with how the season ended, but like I've said, we've got a lot of work to do," Whittingham said. "It's a very competitive league, and we've got to continue to work hard in all areas. If the players do that, and the coaches do that, then we have a chance to be competitive."

The Utes found a way to do so in 2011 despite losing seven contributors to season-ending injuries along the way. The sidelined players included quarterback Jordan Wynn, tight end Dallin Rogers, safety Keith McGill, offensive lineman Latu Heimuli and punt returner Charles Henderson, as well as linebackers Boo Andersen and J.J. Williams.

The depth chart wasn't the only thing changing. Utah's success on the field also varied. Although the Utes topped Montana State, BYU and Pittsburgh in non-conference contests, they started Pac-12 play with losses to USC, Washington, Arizona State and California.

The 0-4 beginning, though, was followed by consecutive victories over Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA and Washington State. The climb to 4-4 in conference play led to a ninth consecutive bowl appearance for the program.

OFFENSE

Norm Chow's one and only season as Utah's offensive coordinator was defined by a change of quarterbacks at halftime of the fourth game. That's when a shoulder injury sidelined Wynn for the season and Jon Hays was called into duty.

After some early inconsistency, the junior college transfer settled into the role and wound up leading the Utes to a 6-2 record as the starter.

Whittingham credits Hays for showing a tremendous amount of progress and becoming "a guy that did a nice job managing the offense."

Running back John White IV eased the transition by rushing for 1,519 yards, a single-season school record. He capped things off with Sun Bowl MVP honors.

"He was obviously a tremendous asset for us, and what he brought to the table was instrumental to our success," Whittingham said, while adding that the offensive line, fullback Shawn Asiata and the wide receivers contributed to White's effectiveness.

Next year, the Utes should be even tougher on the ground when highly touted junior college transfer Kelvin York joins the mix.

The big question mark offensively is on the line, where all-conference tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen have completed their eligibility. Asiata was also a senior.

"There's some very good players that are graduating, but that's the name of the game in college football," Whittingham said. "You've got to replace those guys. That's why you recruit. That's why you develop players in your program to fill the shoes of the guys that are departing."

On the other hand, Whittingham noted that the Utes have a very good group returning. The cast includes interior linemen Sam Brenner, Tevita Stevens and Miles Mason. At the skill positions, Utah returns wide receivers DeVonte Christopher, Reggie Dunn, Dres Anderson and Luke Matthews, as well as tight ends Kendrick Moeai, Jake Murphy and Rogers.

Then there's the quarterback situation, a position that Whittingham feels will be very good next year. Wynn is expected to be back, joining Hays and promising freshmen Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen.

"There's going to be a lot of people getting reps in spring," Whittingham said. "Certainly we're excited to get Jordan back. Jordan is going to be the guy that's taking snaps with the first group, and we're going to see how things progress from there."

Like every position, he added, there will be a competition at quarterback.

DEFENSE

Star Lotulelei's decision to return for his senior season should keep the Utes among the Pac-12's elite defenses. The nose tackle is coming off a stellar season that included first-team all-conference honors, the Morris Trophy (awarded to the conference's top defensive lineman as voted upon by opposing offensive linemen) and Sun Bowl lineman MVP recognition.

"Without a doubt. In my estimation he was the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12, and apparently his peers feel the same way. Obviously, I'm not the only one who thinks that," Whittingham said. "We're excited about having him back next year. He's going to be the anchor of our defense again. He lived up to all the expectations."

Utah's defensive front will take a hit, though. Four key contributors — all-conference honoree Derrick Shelby, Tevita Finau, James Aiono and Nai Fotu — are graduating.

"We lost some good players up front, but fortunately we had a lot of depth there," Whittingham said. "We've got a lot of guys returning."

And some good ones.

Besides Lotulelei, there's the talented Kruger brothers, Dave and Joe. Others in the rotation last season include Nate Fakahafua, LT Tuipolotu, Trevor Reilly and David Rolf.

Reilly is also an accomplished linebacker. He's the lone returnee with starting experience. Two-time tackles leader Chaz Walker has completed his collegiate career, as has Matt Martinez and J.J. Williams.

The linebacker position, Whittingham noted, is where the Utes have the most turnover on defense. Youngsters like V.J. Fehoko, Jacoby Hale and Fakahafua finished last season on the depth chart.

Then there's Brian Blechen. The versatile junior-to-be has started at both linebacker and safety.

"We're going to put Blechen wherever he's needed. That's the bottom line," said Whittingham, who explained that it may depend on how quickly things develop at linebacker. "He'll be on the field somewhere. I can tell you that."

Freshman All-American Eric Rowe is back at free safety, while seniors Mo Lee and Ryan Lacy are expected to open spring ball as the starters at cornerback. The Utes lost interceptions leader Conroy Black to graduation.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Returning veterans dot the landscape here. Kicker Coleman Petersen; punter Sean Sellwood; snapper Patrick Greene; punt returners Griff McNabb and Henderson and return specialists Christopher, Dunn and Matthews are all back. Christopher was the Sun Bowl special teams MVP.

"I think it looks bright," Whittingham said. "Special teams, I think, should be a strong suit for us again next year."

2012 OUTLOOK

As usual, Whittingham is sticking to his approach of not looking past the task at hand.

"They're all big games," he said when asked about the 2012 schedule. "It's certainly very exciting for our fans to have the type of teams that are going to be coming in here every year now, from here on out."

Utah's home slate this fall includes visits by Northern Colorado, BYU, USC, California, Washington State and Arizona. Road trips are scheduled to Utah State, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Colorado.

The biggest game could be Thursday, Oct. 4, when USC visits Rice-Eccles Stadium in a clash that could have South Division title implications.

Utah Utes football

LOOKING BACK

2011 results (8-5, 4-5 Pac-12)

Sept. 1 — MONTANA ST., Won 27-10

Sept. 10 — at USC, Lost 23-14

Sept. 17 — at BYU, Won 54-10

Oct. 1 — WASHINGTON, Lost 31-14

Oct. 8 — ARIZONA ST., Lost 35-14

Oct. 15 — at Pittsburgh, Won 26-14

Oct. 22 — at California, Lost 34-10

Oct. 29 — OREGON ST., Won 27-8

Nov. 5 — at Arizona, Won 34-31

Nov. 12 — UCLA, Won 31-6

Nov. 19 — at Wash. St., Won 30-27 (OT)

Nov. 25 — COLORADO, Lost 17-14

Dec. 31 — Georgia Tech (Sun Bowl), Won 30-27 (OT)

Statistical leaders

All-purpose yards — John White IV (1,563 yards)

Fumble recoveries — Trevor Reilly (2)

Interceptions — Conroy Black (4)

Pass breakups — Ryan Lacy (10)

Passing — Jon Hays (1,459 yards)

Receiving — DeVonte Christopher (663 yards)

Rushing — John White IV (1,519 yards)

Sacks — Trevor Reilly, Derrick Shelby (5)

Scoring — John White IV (102 points)

Tackles — Chaz Walker (118 tackles)

Tackles-for-loss — Derrick Shelby (10)

LOOKING AHEAD

2012 schedule

Aug. 30 — N. COLORADO

Sept. 8 — at Utah State

Sept. 15 — BYU

Sept. 22 — at Arizona State

Oct. 4 — USC

Oct. 13 — at UCLA

Oct. 20 — at Oregon State

Oct. 27 — CALIFORNIA

Nov. 3 — WASHINGTON ST.

Nov. 10 — at Washington

Nov. 17 — ARIZONA

Nov. 23 — at Colorado

TOP STATISTICAL RETURNEES

All-purpose yards — John White IV (1,563 yards)

Fumble recoveries — Trevor Reilly (2)

Interceptions — Brian Blechen, Mo Lee (3)

Pass breakups — Ryan Lacy (10)

Passing — Jon Hays (1,459 yards)

Receiving — DeVonte Christopher (663 yards)

Rushing — John White IV (1,519 yards)

Sacks — Trevor Reilly (5)

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Scoring — John White IV (102 points)

Tackles — Brian Blechen (78 tackles)

Tackles-for-loss — Star Lotulelei, Trevor Reilly (9)

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