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.
"Brian is a special kid," Whittingham told reporters at Pac-12 Media Day. "He's been ahead of the curve."
Even so, Whittingham acknowledged that he struggled a bit with Johnson's youthfulness while contemplating the move. In the end, though, Whittingham decided that the former Utah quarterback and Most Outstanding Player in the 2009 Sugar Bowl was the best man for the job and what the program needed at the time.
Receivers coach Aaron Roderick was also given strong consideration and ended up with the added title of passing game coordinator.
Other staff moves included the addition of Dan Finn as offensive line coach, Sharrieff Shah as cornerbacks coach and Ilaisa Tuiaki as fullbacks and tight ends coach.
What a difference a year makes. Utah's once-thin stable of quarterbacks now includes a bigger, stronger and healthier Jordan Wynn; a pair of promising freshmen in Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen; and an experienced senior in Jon Hays, who appeared in 11 games last season and made nine starts.
On top of that, there's redshirt freshman Adam Schulz. The walk-on may have the strongest arm in the group.
"We went from a 'lean' position to one that is strong now," Whittingham noted.
How it all sorts out remains to be seen. Wynn, who was sidelined after four games last season with a shoulder injury, enters camp on top of the depth chart. The junior has bulked up his frame in an effort to become more durable after enduring three shoulder surgeries since 2010.
"He's actually got some arms now," Whittingham said during spring ball. "Instead of No. 2 pencils hanging from his shoulders, he's got some arms to him. He looks good."
So, too, have new additions Wilson and Hansen. Whittingham predicts that both players are going to be stars at Utah.
Focusing on the task at hand
Good things are expected from the Utes this season. They've been picked to finish second in Pac-12 South in the conference's preseason media poll. The lofty forecast has added intrigue to an Oct. 4 game at Rice-Eccles Stadium against league favorite and projected national championship contender USC.
Although Whittingham is well aware that the Trojans could be ranked No. 1 by then and it could be the biggest home game in Utah history, he insists the Utes aren't focusing in on it.
They're all about da Bears — the Northern Colorado Bears — their season-opening opponent on Aug. 30.
"We've got Northern Colorado. That's our first hurdle and (then) we've got hurdle after hurdle. So we don't look ahead or look past anybody," Whittingham said. "As soon as you start worrying about games down the road then bad things happen. So we're completely focused on Northern Colorado right now."
A year ago, a 17-14 loss at home to last-place Colorado wound up costing the Utes a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game at Oregon. They bounced back, however, to defeat Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
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