SALT LAKE CITY — It was a frustrating year up on the hill. A second consecutive 5-7 season isn’t sitting well with Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes. Adding to their aggravation was this year’s Pac-12 championship game final between Stanford and Arizona State. They defeated the victorious Cardinal and dropped a one-point decision to the Sun Devils during the regular season.
“That’s how close we were, but close doesn’t count. There’s nobody in this building that doesn’t understand that. We all understand that,” Whittingham said. “So we’re all working hard to try to get over that hump. That’s our objective.”
Although the Utes went just 2-7 in conference play — their worst mark since joining the league in 2011 — three of the setbacks were by a touchdown or less. Two other losses came without starting quarterback Travis Wilson, who was sidelined when an intracranial artery injury was discovered during concussion tests following the ASU game.
Other injuries throughout the season also had an impact.
“It’s been tough, but we’re just going to keep working and searching for answers,” Whittingham said. “That’s all you can do — is keep trying to improve.”
In that regard, Whittingham believes progress is being made.
“The record doesn’t say, that but I believe we’re quite a bit better than we were last year,” he explained. “But, again, the only thing that really counts is the record and that’s all people look at. That’s how this business is. We understand that. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Utah’s 2013 record includes nonconference wins over Utah State (30-26), Weber State (70-7) and BYU (20-13), as well as Pac-12 victories over Stanford (27-21) and Colorado (24-17). Losses came to Oregon State (51-48 in overtime), UCLA (34-27), Arizona (35-24), USC (19-3), Arizona State (20-19), Oregon (44-21) and Washington State (49-37).
At one point, the Utes dropped five consecutive games — losing bowl eligibility in the process.
Whittingham said the main areas of deficiency have been identified and will be addressed heavily in this year’s recruiting class, which will be geared toward receivers and the secondary. Getting more speed on the perimeter is the priority.
“In evaluating the season as a whole that’s the thing that needs to happen,” said Whittingham, who added that improvement comes in increments — not overnight. “So we need to have this group make us better. That’s really the bottom line.”
As such, Whittingham noted that all efforts are focused on recruiting right now and making sure that evaluations are done properly to get the right guys into the program.
The newcomers will blend into a foundation already in place.
“There was a lot of positives this year,” Whittingham said. “So I’m not going to say we didn’t make some progress.”
The Utes tied for the national lead in total sacks with 39 and placed senior defensive end Trevor Reilly and sophomore punter Tom Hackett on the Pac-12’s all-conference first team. Senior defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi was a second-team selection.
Five others (wide receiver Dres Anderson, center Vyncent Jones, cornerback Keith McGill, kicker Andy Phillips and linebacker Jason Whittingham) earned honorable mention recognition.
Not being bowl eligible for the second straight year, though, has put a damper on things.
“It’s disappointing, very disappointing,” Whittingham said. “So that’s probably the best way I can describe it.”
The situation, he noted, is being addressed.
“There’s only one thing you can do — just keep working as hard as you can and keep trying to improve,” Whittingham said. “That’s whether you have a great or a horrible year. You’ve got to approach the offseason with the same intensity and work ethic regardless. So that really doesn’t change.”
OFFENSE: Whittingham said that backup quarterback Adam Schulz showed a lot of poise, leadership and toughness in his three starts in place of the injured Wilson. Schulz, who also saw action in three other games, finished the season with 1,008 yards passing. The sophomore completed 75 of 154 passes with six touchdowns and five interceptions.
After the season finale against Colorado, however, Whittingham noted that if Wilson is unable to return “there will be a quarterback competition this spring.” Three freshmen quarterbacks (Brandon Cox, Conner Manning and Micah Thomas) redshirted this season.
As for protecting the quarterbacks, Whittingham noted that the offensive line was a little bit inconsistent this season and that he expected more out of the guys overall — explaining that they played very well some weeks and not so well in others.
Whittingham said the running backs were much like the offensive line. They had some good games but were not as productive as they needed to be. Sophomore Bubba Poole topped the team with 607 yards rushing.
Anderson became the seventh player in program history to reach 1,000 yards receiving in a season. The junior carried a big load after teammate Kenneth Scott was injured in the season opener against Utah State.
Despite Anderson’s big numbers, Whittingham said the Utes need to get better at wide receiver. He added that the position group has to be more productive and have more impact in games. Building depth is a priority.
The Utes thought tight end was going to a be position of strength, Whittingham added, until injuries sidelined both Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga at one point. Murphy eventually returned from a broken wrist and did a lot of good things over the final three games. Both could be back next season.
DEFENSE: Utah finished the season tied with Ohio State for the national lead in total sacks with 39. Whittingham was also pleased with the Utes’ run defense, which he called “stout.” Utah ranked third in the Pac-12, allowing just 130.3 yards per game on the ground.
Whittingham said that Reilly, Palepoi and Nate Orchard performed well on the defensive line. He added that all the guys that played up front did a nice job this season.
Linebacker proved to be another position of strength. Whittingham noted that it may be the most improved position on the team. He was especially pleased with the production of Jason Whittingham, Jacoby Hale, Jared Norris and Reilly, who split time between linebacker and defensive end.
“We expect that position to take another step forward next year,” Whittingham said.
As for the secondary, Whittingham acknowledged that a lack of interceptions really hurt the Utes this season. They wound up picking off just three, despite having 12-15 opportunities that were just dropped.
“We’ve got to finish those plays,” said Whittingham, who explained that it was frustrating because the players worked hard in practice. But, for whatever reason, they were “snake bit” when it came to picking off passes.
McGill was a bright spot with 12 pass breakups, the most by any Utah defensive back since Eric Weddle had a dozen back in 2005. Whittingham also pointed out that Reggie Porter, Justin Thomas and Eric Rowe made some big plays in the secondary as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: In Whittingham’s evaluation, Utah's special teams were up and down. Hackett led the Pac-12 in punting and freshman kicker Phillips was an impressive 17 of 20 on field goals and a perfect 41 of 41 on PATs. Snapper Chase Dominguez also had a strong first season of college ball.
Sophomore punt returner Geoff Norwood was solid as well.
It was Utah’s kickoffs and kickoff returns, however, that Whittingham said were not all that productive this season.
LOOKING AHEAD: Offensively, Utah has two starting spots to fill on the line with the graduation losses of Jones and left guard Jeremiah Tofaeono. Running backs Kelvin York and Karl Williams have also moved on. The Utes, however, have redshirt freshmen Troy McCormick and Dre’Vian Young waiting in the wings, plus Poole and Lucky Radley return. There’s also likely to be additions from the recruiting pool.
The planned bulk-up of the receiving corps is enhanced by the possible return of both tight ends Tonga and Murphy. Although Tonga will be back after getting a medical redshirt, Murphy is still weighing a possible jump to the NFL.
“We think that’s going to be a strong suit for us, again, going forward,” Whittingham said of the tight end position.
On defense, the big news is that senior Brian Blechen will be back at safety again after sitting out the 2013 season because of tendinitis. The former freshman All-American was in the process of being moved to linebacker before the injury — a move no longer necessary because of depth changes, including the addition of Miami (Fla.) transfer Gionni Paul.
“Trainers tell me he should be 100 percent ready to go by spring ball,” Whittingham said of Blechen. “So we’ll see what happens.”
* * * * *
No timetable for possible staff changes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham declined to say if he would make any staff changes in the wake of the program’s second consecutive losing season.
“Everything’s being evaluated. That’s a work in progress. So there’s no definitive answers right now or definitive decisions I should say,” Whittingham said. “But that’s something you do each year is you evaluate everything you’re doing on the field, off the field, recruiting. Everything is being evaluated.”
Whittingham added that there is no timetable for the evaluations, noting that the process will last as long as it takes. Whittingham said he’s doing what he normally does in terms of making a full evaluation of things.