SALT LAKE CITY — If anyone can recognize a seam in the punt coverage, it’s Morgan Scalley. Utah’s safeties coach played on the historic 2004 team that won the Fiesta Bowl. As an all-conference punt returner, he knew how to see the daylight and run to it.
Now he’s seeing it again.
With the season-opener four days away, Scalley believes the clouds that have followed the Utes the last two years could quickly lift. Most experts disagree, since Utah’s schedule is arguably the toughest in the country. The Utes have games against nationally ranked Oregon (3), UCLA (7), Stanford (11), USC (15) and ASU (19), plus dubious road games at Michigan and Oregon State. On paper, this looks like another sub-.500 season.
But despite graduating Magna Cum Laude, Scalley doesn’t put much stock in what’s on paper. He was among the original believers at Utah when it became the first non-power team to go undefeated and play in a BCS bowl.
So it stands to reason that when Scalley was asked this week to name five indications the Utes can be better than last year’s 5-7 team, it took him virtually no time to respond, even in the face of the scariest schedule in school history. To wit:
Good health. Thus far the Utes have been relatively injury-free in camp. Projected starting linebackers Gionni Paul and Jacoby Hale have been out since spring with injuries, but both are expected back before mid-season.
The only major season-ending key injury has been to starting corner Reggie Porter.
But quarterback Travis Wilson is back and in the best condition of his career. The Utes have a half-dozen healthy quarterbacks — something that has never occurred. Also back is standout receiver Kenneth Scott, who missed all but a few minutes of last season, and safety Brian Blechen, who missed it entirely.
The running backs group is three deep.
“So we have health and depth,” Scalley said. “That’s something that may turn against us in Game 1, but ...”
But if either of those goes south, the other is sure to follow.
Better skill players on both sides of the ball: Utah’s overall athleticism has risen since its move to the Pac-12, something that had to happen.
The addition of receivers Kaelin Clay and Tim Patrick, running backs Troy McCormick and Devontae Booker, defensive backs Travonne Hobbs, Andre Godfrey and Tevin Carter, quarterback Kendal Thompson and the growth of dual threat Dominique Hatfield, have not only given Utah more depth, but more game-changers. A shortage of skill players, on both sides of the ball, was the Utes’ downfall last season.
Scott is joined by Dres Anderson, the conference’s top returning receiver.
When it comes to guys who pass the eyeball inspection, the Utes have them. But people who pass the live action test? The answers are still a few days away.
Experience at key spots: Utah went with fairly inexperienced defensive backs, last year. Too bad for them; the Pac-12 is a harsh league for learners. Those players, though, have matured and should be better prepared for the conference’s relentless passing.
Senior Eric Rowe is considered one of the league’s best defensive backs and fellow classman Davion Orphey seems to have finally stabilized his game. Blechen will make a major difference, unless the layoff has made him docile. His wild-man beard says otherwise. Hatfield, a sophomore, is playing both ways (eat your heart out, Chuck Bednarik).
Rowe and Charles Henderson have been through the gauntlet and lived to tell. Defensive end Nate Orchard has not missed a game since his freshman season, while last year’s second- and fifth-leading tacklers — Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris — also return.
Kickers Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett are all-America candidates.
Sustained leadership: Scalley says last year the leadership was good (Trevor Reilly) but “I believe the leadership is the same this year.”
Wilson has not only led on the field, but off, by adeptly dealing with the head injury that threatened his career. Senior lineman Junior Salt is drawing daily praise from the coaching staff for his role.
Anderson is the team’s go-to guy for the media, covering all subjects with savoir faire. Talking is one thing, but he goes far beyond that.
Few things say “leadership” better than backing it up with 1,000 yards of receiving.
Conditioning: “In a conference that’s going 100 miles and hour,” Scalley said, “and so many teams play a fast tempo, I think we’ve done a good job in the offseason, and now, putting our players in better position by being in better shape.”
He noted that one-fourth of the way into fall camp, the team had run 150 more plays than last year.
“But we have to be fast during the plays, not just fast in between the whistles,” he said.
Playing road games at sea level should be a bonus for the Utes, even though they’re games are at places such as UCLA and Stanford.
Still, this is only camp talk and Scalley admits it.
“At this point, every fall it seems the same,” he said.
The first game is against Idaho State, which shouldn’t be a problem. But if the Utes lose, they can chuck the five reasons they should be better and replace them with 11 upcoming reasons they won’t win a single game.
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