It is going on four years since Jim Fassel came into town, pocket calculator and laptop PC in tow, yet we still know little about the coach with college-kid good looks.
This much is certain: Utah's Head Football Coach remains a monument to middle-of-the-road. He neither subscribes to the stolid, arch-conservative methods of former coach Chuck Stobart, nor the freewheeling, outspoken style of Wayne Howard. He is neither giddily high nor deathly low after games."I try to stay on an even keel," he says.
This is a man for the 80's - moderate, cerebral and innovative.
Yet, as the 1988 football season dawns, Fassel and his Utes remain slightly out of focus. He promised offense, and he delivered offense; enough to lead the nation most of last year in passing. He also promised wins - though he never specified how many - but has only been mildly successful in that area.
So at this stage, it appears to be a hung jury on Fassel. His accessibility, public relations acumen and ability to put an entertaining product on the field rate a solid A. But his ability to win is C-minus so far. After going 8-4 his first year at Utah, he then went 2-9 and 5-7, putting his three-year total at 15-20.
And he still has yet to beat (dare we say it?) the Bullies in Blue, BYU.
Another season here, and once again we are left wondering about Utah. Is Fassel truly the child coaching prodigy he was touted as? Will Eddie Johnson return to the form that once made him one of the country's best young running backs? Will Scott Mitchell be the next John Elway? Will the defense come out of its two-year coma? Will the Utes become a contender? Will the Duck offense become as widely copied as Levis jeans? Will middle-of-the road continue to describe both Fassel's personal style and his record?
Forthwith is a look at Utah '88, the team that Jim Fassel (and his Apple II) built.
QUARTERBACKS: There's only one name here - Mitchell. If he doesn't get hurt, you won't hear from the other guys until they're seniors. At 6-6, 230, Mitchell is big enough to inspire fear in the opposition and confidence in teammates. Last year, as a freshman, he threw for 1,448 yards and ranked No. 15 in the nation in passing efficiency.
"I'm ready to go," said Mitchell. "Last year was a time to study and learn. This year it is time to go out and do it."
Should Mitchell get hurt he would be replaced by one of two redshirt freshmen: Mike Richmond or Andy Emch. Otherwise, Mitchell is already on target to smash most of the quarterbacking records the Utes have.
RUNNING BACKS: The Utes were hurt some with the loss of accused drug dealer Martel Black, but not as badly as one may think. Johnson is still the straw that stirs the drink and along with him is the formidable Clifton Smith. If Johnson is at half speed - he missed last year with a knee injury - he's still deadly. He says his knee is "95 if not 100 percent" recovered. How well he can take the punishment in a game will determine if he returns to all-WAC status, or simply fades into history as a great one who never came back.
Smith has been touted as a potential star since his arrival, and coaches feel it is time for the 215-pound sophomore to start emerging. Throw in quarterback-turned-fullback Brian Bero, who now tilts the scales at a healthy 230, and there is room to spare here.
However, the Utes aren't taking colsolation in potential. "You know what talent is?" says running backs coach Wayne McQuivey. "Nothing. Not until you utilize it."
RECEIVERS: The Utes are solid here, too. Carl Harry, the team's top deep threat, and Aaron Grimm return with starting experience. The flanker spot will probably go to sophomore Cedric Riles, who replaces projected starter Darren Hughes. Hughes was arrested along with Black in the drug trafficking incident and subsequently kicked off the team.
If Riles learns to read defenses and make the proper cuts, Hughes could be forgotten quickly. At 6-0, 195, he is faster and stronger than any of the past wide receivers.
The tight end will either be adequate senior Dennis Smith, or senior SMU transfer Vince Jenkins. Jenkins, however, is doubtful due to problems in the classroom.
Returning at U-back is Curt Jones, who could well have an all-league year. Jones was the seventh-leading receiver in the WAC last year.
LINE: Utah is deeper here than last year, partly because injuries made certain that anyone with a helmet got a chance to play in 1987.
The Utes helped themselves considerably with the signing of Ricks College offensive guard Lance Heaton. At 6-3, 280, he gives the line needed bulk and brings the offensive line average to about 6-4, 261.
"I get excited about the work ethic of our line," says Mitchell, already making friends with those he'll be counting on.
If the line stays healthy, Utah will pile up big yardage again. But injuries on the line could quickly dampen spirits quickly. "If the offensive line holds up, yes, without a doubt we have the potential to have the best offense we've had by far," said Fassel.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Again, the success of the defense - and probably the team - will depend on how much pressure the defensive line can put on the opposition. End James Thompson brings good experience, but torn knee cartilage may slow him in the early going. At tackle, James McKenna returns as a starter. J.C. transfer Joe Clausi, senior Brian Wise and sophomore Greg Reynolds will also battle for starting defensive line spots.
Depth is better this year also, with returned LDS missionary Roger Clawson and 6-2, 270 Spokane Falls J.C. transfer Wallin Fanene available.
"We've got to get better on defense, it's as simple as that," said Fassel. "If we do, we'll be successful. If we don't, we won't."
LINEBACKERS: This area should be well enough off with starters Darren Patterson, Garland Harris and Frank Bonafacio back, all proven commodities. Molonai Hola, Pasa Tukuafu and Haloti Moala are all solid as backups, giving the Utes considerable depth.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Utah has least five players with solid experience. The safeties include all-WAC player Eric Jacobsen and senior Greg Smith. At one corner is sophomore Sean Knox, a fine athlete who could become an exceptional player in 1988. He is joined by either redshirt freshman LaVon Edwards or injury-plagued starter Pat Kennedy at the other corner.
KICKING: All the duties here could well end up in the lap of senior Scott Lieber. The Highland High product made 14 of 15 field goal attempts last year. This year he may also be handling punting duties, as nobody else seems ready to replace graduated Don Cruse.