The University of Utah football program concluded spring camp in April and released a two-deep depth chart shortly after. Some of the position battles were all but won during the spring, while others may not be as solid as you might think.
The offense shined during most of spring camp. Utah's decision to give quarterback Travis Wilson Pac-12 experience last season, despite suffering hardships at the time, is beginning to look like a wise one. At the running back position this spring, the Utes showed their depth, with James "Bubba" Poole, Lucky Radley and Karl Williams each getting the attention of the coaching staff. The receiving corps is loaded with experience. Kenneth Scott, Dres Anderson and Jake Murphy headline a group of pass catchers on par with the best of the Pac-12.
Most of the questions surrounding Utah's two-deep are about the defense. Who will replace No. 14 overall NFL draft pick Star Lotulelei? Utah's linebacking group has a well-earned reputation for stopping the run, but will it improve this year in stopping the pass as well? Virtually the entire defensive backfield graduated last year; who is likely to replace Reggie Topps, Moe Lee and Ryan Lacy?
Today we go position by position, excluding special teams, and break down the Utes' post-spring camp two-deep depth chart.
Listed starter: Jeremiah "C.J." Poutasi
The left tackle position is all but locked down. A sophomore, Jeremiah Poutasi has pretty much locked down the job to protect quarterback Wilson's blind side. The school is calling Poutasi a preseason All-America candidate.
In terms of skill and ability to excel at his position, Poutasi may be Utah's best player — not just on the offensive line, but on the entire team. Only Murphy gives him a serious run for his money in that regard. His size and weight — 6-5, 345 pounds — make him an ideal left tackle, and his instincts on the offensive line are top-notch.
Barring injury, Poutasi will anchor a solid offensive line loaded with talent and experience. Wilson will doubtlessly be grateful for the luxury.
Listed starter: Jeremiah Tofaeono
Tofaeono is another solid offensive lineman that excelled during spring camp. Although this fall will be his first running a hurry-up, spread-style offense, Tafaeono said he is eager to face the challenge.
"It just means that us O-linemen got to drop some weight and get in shape," Tafaeono said during spring camp. "We're not huddling at all, so we got to move faster and get on that ball, because (co-offensive coordinator Dennis) Erickson really likes to move the ball."
Tafaeono is part of a position group that has more players on scholarship than it has ever had at this time of the year, and Tafaeono, along with Poutasi, is a leader in that group. The position at left guard is his to lose.
Listed starter: Vyncent Jones
Jones is a local product with a ton of experience. The 6-3, 320-pound projected starter is another integral part of an offensive line that had one of its most solid spring camps in recent history.
One of the aspects of the offensive line that should excite Utah fans for this football season is that the position group actually survived camp without injuries. The spring camp of 2013 was a far cry from previous years when several offensive linemen went down with injuries early, leaving huge question marks and the dark cloud of inconsistency hanging on one of the most integral parts of the offense.
Jones and his teammates are hoping that the no-injury trend continues this fall, particularly because freshman Hiva Lutui is listed as Jones' backup. Trading an experinced and talented senior for a raw and unproven freshman would not be ideal at center.
Listed starter: Junior Salt
Coming off a redshirt season forced on him by a broken foot, Junior Salt provides the most intrigue on the offensive line.
Last season, the JUCO transfer was slated to make a huge impact alongside Star Lotulelei on the defensive line, but after returning from his injury, Salt is now switching over to the offense. Before he came to Salt Lake City, Salt was a JUCO All-America offensive lineman at Mt. San Antonio College in California.
Despite the adversity that comes with injuries, Salt made it through spring camp and impressed at his position. If all goes as planned, the job is Salt's to lose, but injuries are tricky. This position battle may not be over yet.
Listed starter: Siaosi Aiono
Aiono is another mainstay for the Utes at the right tackle position. The 6-2, 305-pound sophomore is among the most talented lineman the Utes have in their two-deep.
Aiono committed to the Utes in 2010 following the announcement that Utah had been invited to the Pac-12. At the time, his family told the Deseret News that Utah's pending membership in the league was a bonus.
Following a solid spring camp, the job is definitely his to lose.
Listed starter: Travis Wilson
Much of the media coverage that came from spring camp centered around a "quarterback battle" between returning starter Travis Wilson and Adam Schultz, a talented quarterback in his own right with a cannon for an arm.
Realistically, this position battle is more locked down than the Utah program will publicly admit. Having started half the year for Utah in 2012, Wilson brings back with him all the lessons and experience he learned during his freshman baptism by fire.
If Utah coaches really intended for there to be a quarterback battle heading into the 2013 season, they would have instead opted to start Jon Hays through the second half of 2012 and would have left the job wide open going into spring camp. This they did not do, as they elected to invest instead in Wilson.
Coaches and fans are hoping the investment in Wilson pays off because he will almost certainly be the starter this fall.
Listed starter: Kelvin York
York is a mildly interesting player to list as the starter at running back because he didn't participate much in spring camp. Sidelined by a turf toe injury, most of the starts went to Karl Williams this spring, and he didn't disappoint.
York is listed as a starter simply because of the carries he took in 2012 and the experience he brings to the table. After York is where the running back position gets interesting.
James "Bubba" Poole gained momentum and a reputation for being a hard-nosed, talented runner throughout spring camp, and fan favorite Lucky Radley performed well when given the opportunity. The biggest surprise, however, was Karl Williams. The former walk-on impressed throughout the spring, culminating in a solid showing during the Red and White game.
If for any reason York is unable to play, it's a total toss up as to who will take the carries for the Utes. While the new spread offense makes the position less important than it has been the last two years, who Utah will trust after York to keep defenses honest on the ground is a big question mark.
Listed starters: Dres Anderson, Quinton Pedroza and Kenneth Scott
The wide receiver positions are all but a lock this year. Anderson emerged during spring camp as a real leader at wideout, and Scott isn't far behind him.
“(Anderson) is starting to separate himself from the other receivers and really become a go-to guy,” Whittingham said early into spring sessions.
The receiving corps will be much more important to the offense in 2013 than it has been the last two years. Erickson's shift in the offensive scheme will put much more pressure on the quarterback and receivers to move the ball while at the same time taking some of the pressure off the running backs.
The change in offensive strategy is deliberate and coincides with Erickson's arrival in Salt Lake City. It also showcases Brian Johnson's former glory as a spread-style quarterback and allows him to teach Wilson what he knows best.
If Andersen doesn't post more catches in 2013 than his 2012 team-leading 36, the Utes will definitely be in trouble. Given the wealth of talent at the position, however, fans should be less concerned about the receivers than other position groups.
Listed starter: Jake Murphy
If not for C.J. Poutasi, Murphy would be far and away the best football player on Utah's roster. The 6-4, 252-pound junior is a brilliant pass catcher — one of the best on the team. If Murphy has any weakspot at all, it's in blocking and run protection.
Fortunately for him, Murphy's listed backup, Westlee Tonga, is brilliant at those things. While only slightly less sure with his hands than Murphy, the senior from Spring, Texas, is outstanding at getting off his stance and making space for the running backs.
The tight end group is among the strongest Utah has coming out of spring camp.
“I think they could be one of the best tandems in the conference this year if they continue to develop,” Whittingham said in April.
Look for the Utes to use both of these versatile, deadly weapons in double-tight end packages this fall. Having two skilled tight ends opens up a wealth of possibilities for the Utes in terms of creative play-calling, so watching Tonga and Murphy this fall will be entertaining for sure.
Listed starter: Nate Orchard OR Jason Whittingham
Like much of the defensive two-deep, the left and right ends of the defensive line are absolutely chock-full of intrigue.
Nate Orchard and Jason Whittingham are listed as co-starters, yet neither of them played a down in spring camp. Furthermore, Jason Whittingham is moving from the linebacker position to the defensive line.
At 6-3, 234 pounds and 6-2, 234 pounds respectively, how Orchard and Whittingham will be able to get past offensive tackles and put pressure on Pac-12 quarterbacks appears to be a total mystery at this point. The alternative, Thretton Palamo, doesn't appear to be a better option, however. Palamo was responsible for losing containment on Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton and allowing him to get down to the 3-yard line during overtime of Utah's loss to the Aggies last year.
Orchard and Whittingham will be expected to contain runners and put pressure on Pac-12 quarterbacks on a weekly basis. Whether or not they'll be able to do that consistently is something yet to be determined.
Projected starters: Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu, Sese Ianu
Tenny Palepoi is the heir apparent to Lotulelei. That much is abundantly clear. What's more, Palepoi is a steal. Holding offers from both BYU and USU as well as other out-of-state squads, the Snow College transfer opted for the Utes despite their offer coming last.
While the ends appear to be complete question marks, the defensive tackles are the strength of the defensive line. Palepoi is definitely not Lotutelei, but he didn't get offers from all three of Utah's FBS programs for nothing. The mantle of leadership has definitely fallen on his shoulders.
What is not abundantly clear is why Tuipulotu and Ianu are listed as co-starters when the more talented Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is available. The reason is likely because Tu'ikolovatu is a freshman and the co-starters are both upperclassmen; Tu'ikolovatu will have to earn his job.
At times, a coaching staff will list a player as second in the two-deep to inspire him to perform at peak capacity. This definitely appears to be one of those times.
Listed starters: Trevor Reilly OR Jason Whittingham
The right end position carries with it as much intrigue as does the left end position simply because, once again, neither of the two listed starters played during spring ball. Both Reilly and Whittingham were recuperating from injuries.
Reilly definitely has the edge in this position battle. The 6-5, 245-pound senior is expected to produce very well for the Utes in his final season wearing crimson. How well he'll play, however, is something fans will have to wait until fall camp and the 2013 season to discover.
If Reilly can't get healthy, this position might be another vulnerability for the Utes. Whittingham, again, is moving to the line from the linebacker position, and his body may not be cut out for what the defensive line position requires.
Listed starter: Brian Blechen
Blechen has made a name for himself many times in the Utah defensive backfield. He has a propensity for snagging interceptions at very opportune times.
Blechen switched from safety to linebacker last season but had a difficult time staying consistently healthy. He also was given a three-game suspension for violating team rules. Health problems continued this spring as he didn't see any time on the field, and no one knows yet if Blechen is beyond his off-the-field problems.
One of the most talented players on Utah's defense, Blechen will most certainly start, but if not, Utah will rely on the same player it did last year in his absence, ReShawn Hooker. The drop-off is substantial, but survivable.
Listed starter: V.J. Fehoko OR LT Filiaga
One of the main concerns plaguing the entire linebacking corps — other than perhaps Brian Blechen's status — is whether or not it will be able to stop the pass in any meaningful fashion.
Fehoko and Filiaga are very good at plugging up holes and stopping the run, but they struggled in 2012 to stop the pass in any meaningful way, and Pac-12 offenses made the Utes pay for it. Furthermore, Filiaga is listed on the two-deep at two different linebacking positions.
Brighton High School standout Uaea Mesina also made the two-deep at middle linebacker, a notable accomplishment. Coaches have been impressed with his raw talent, but his ability to read plays and act on instinct is as of now very underdeveloped. Mesina likely won't see playing time unless both Filiaga and Fehoko go down with injury.
Listed starter: Jared Norris or LT Filiaga
The rover linebacker position is full of question marks. Indeed, no other position group was more maligned in 2012 than the linebackers, and Utah fans should be worried that the problems behind the line might very well continue.
Both Filiaga and Norris are talented linebackers, but neither of them have a wealth of collegiate experience. Both are sophomores, and both were highly touted recruits, Filiaga getting interest from several Pac-12 schools as well as LSU, and Norris getting attention from virtually the entire Mountain West Conference in addition to several Pac-12 schools.
Whether one of them will take a step up to solidify himself as a starter or to stabilize the linebacking corps is another matter entirely.
Listed starters: Keith McGill and Justin Thomas
Utah lost a load of depth in its defensive backfield. Reggie Topps, Ryan Lacy and Moe Lee — among the most talented players on the 2012 roster — all have graduated from the program, and Utah is actively looking for players to step up to replace them.
McGill is one of those players that Utah coaches hope pans out. The junior college transfer from California possesses size and speed that most players at his position envy. Coming out of junior college, McGill showed loads of promise.
McGill should have been a senior in 2012, but took a redshirt following the 2011 season in which he went down injured against Arizona State. Now in his senior season, McGill will definitely be hungry to validate the trust that Utah coaches have placed in him.
The biggest omission from the depth chart comes at the cornerback position. Wykie Freeman, a junior from Texas, was conspicuously absent from the two-deep. Freeman went down with injury during spring ball, but still is among the most talented players at his position on Utah's entire team, and his omission has come as a complete surprise.
Listed starters: Joseph Smith OR Michael Walker
The nickelback position is another area where Utah lost a lot of depth from 2012 to 2013. Joe Smith and Michael Walker are both upperclassmen, but neither boast significant achievements as members of the Utah defense.
Perhaps Smith and Walker's brightest moment was the 2011 rivalry game — also known as "The Blowout" — in which Utah completely emptied its bench near the end of the game. Walker made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage against the Cougars.
Still, it's as yet unknown what these players can bring to the table over the course of a Pac-12 season. Stay tuned to this position come fall.
Listed starters: Eric Rowe OR Tevin Carter
Eric Rowe bore a heavy burden in 2012. The standout safety was asked to do more from his position than just about anyone else. A starter since he arrived in Salt Lake City, Rowe was among the tackling leaders as a freshman, and as a sophomore, plugging up holes when no one else could.
Carter's listing as a co-starter with Rowe is an intriguing move, especially since Carter hasn't even joined the team yet. Rowe has to have the edge. Carter's listing as a co-starter is more of a signal that Carter has a realistic shot at edging Rowe out than anything else.
“A lot of it has to with how Tevin comes in and plays,” Whittingham explained during spring camp.
Utah is returning a wealth of experience at the safety position, despite losing several players from the defensive backfield. This position is one of the most secure on the defense.
Listed starter: Tyron Morris-Edwards
Tyron Morris-Edwards is a talented player in his own right, not far behind Rowe in terms of talent, though he doesn't have nearly as much experience as Rowe. Morris-Edwards made one start in 2012 at the safety position.
Morris-Edwards' most notable play in 2012 was a touchdown-saving tackle vs. BYU. He brings a lot of skills to the table, has a nose for intercepting the ball, and doesn't face a significant challenge from his currently listed backup, Charles Henderson.