Utah football: Utes experienced 'good start' to first year of Pac-12 play

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11 2012 2:35 p.m. MST

Utah Head Coach Kyle Whittingham watches as the University of Utah practices Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 during preparations to play Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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.

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