Brad Rock: Five reasons Utes think they'll be better

Published: Sunday, Aug. 24 2014 11:30 a.m. MDT

Coach Kyle Whittingham talks with players during University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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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.

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