Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Will things be better the second time around for the Utah Utes?
After going 8-5 overall and 4-5 in conference play in their inaugural campaign, the Utes are eager for their second Pac-12 season to get under way. Players reported for camp Wednesday and practices begin today.
"We're just like every other team in the Pac-12. We're pushing for the No. 1 spot," senior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said after acknowledging Utah didn't have the kind of season it wanted a year ago. "The Rose Bowl is something we really want to shoot for."
The Utes, he added, have prepared well for the challenge of competing for the Pac-12 title.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that there's an obvious familiarity with the Pac-12 now that can be a positive in a lot of ways. However, he added that it doesn't diminish the importance of always playing at a high level.
"You've got to be ready to play your best football week in and week out, regardless of competition," Whittingham said. "But certainly in the Pac-12 it's challenging every single week."
Five points of emphasis as Utah opens camp:
Replacing Bergstrom, Cullen
Whittingham didn't hesitate when asked about the top priority in camp.
"Offensive tackle, offensive tackle, and offensive tackle. In that order," he said. "That's the most pressing issue that we have. We recruited to that end."
The graduation loss of all-conference starters Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen has left a couple of sizeable holes on the offensive line.
A season-ending Achilles injury to junior college transfer Marc Pouvave likely reduced the field of potential candidates to seven, four of whom will fill the depth chart with performances in camp.
Competitors include junior Percy Taumoelau, senior Miles Mason, as well as redshirt freshmen Kala Friel and Daniel Nielson. They'll be joined in the battle for spots by three linemen who didn't participate in spring ball ?— junior college transfer Carlos Lozano, highly touted Las Vegas high school recruit Jeremiah Poutasi and former Arizona prep star J.J. Dielman.
Whittingham said the guys who give Utah the best chance to win will play, regardless of age and experience.
Stabilizing the strong safety spot
The surprising news this week that junior safety Brian Blechen was suspended for the first three games of the season for a violation of team rules has altered the landscape in Utah's secondary. The Utes haven't played without Blechen since his arrival on campus two years ago. He has started in all 26 games, earning Freshman All-America and Pac-12 honorable mention honors along the way. The playmaker has made 145 tackles and seven interceptions, including two game-saving picks.
Junior Quade Chappuis , a former walk-on out of Lone Peak High, enters camp on top of the depth chart at strong safety. Chappuis played in all 13 games last season, making 20 tackles and one interception.
Backups include junior Michael Walker and sophomore Terrell Reese.
The Utes are solid at free safety with sophomore Eric Rowe returning as the starter with sophomore Tyron Morris-Edwards and the versatile Reese in reserve.
Brian Johnson's new role
Utah's offensive coordinator post has gone from one extreme to another, at least as far as age is concerned. The Utes had 65-year-old Norm Chow calling the shots a year ago. He left after one season, however, to become the head coach at Hawaii. In his place, Whittingham promoted quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. At 25, Johnson is the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation.
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