We feel we’ve played good defense, we’re playing good special teams, we’re running the ball effectively. But we feel what’s really held us back is a more potent throwing game. —Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham will be seeing stars before the Utes open training camp later this week. Same goes for senior linemen Salesi Uhatafe and Filipo Mokofisi. All three will participate in the Pac-12’s annual media days Wednesday and Thursday in Hollywood, California.
They’ll do so as representatives of the lone program in the Pac-12 South that has yet to make an appearance in the conference championship game. Since the alignment was formed following expansion in 2011, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA and USC have all made it.
Although Utah hasn’t, the Utes do have something to brag about. They’ve won 28 games over the past three seasons, more than any other team in the Pac-12 South.
Breaking through and winning an outright title, however, remains elusive.
After going 9-4 last season, Whittingham noted that “we’ve been so close the last three years” when it comes to greater success in conference play.
“We feel we’ve played good defense, we’re playing good special teams, we’re running the ball effectively,” he said. “But we feel what’s really held us back is a more potent throwing game.”
And that, he explained, is why Troy Taylor was brought in from Eastern Washington to be the new offensive coordinator.
Improving an offense that ranked ninth in passing (217.7 yards per game) and 10th in pass efficiency (120.8 rating) last season in the Pac-12 may be Utah’s primary storyline going into camp.
It won’t be easy after four offensive linemen were taken in the NFL draft. Then there’s a tight quarterback battle and an ongoing search for playmakers at receiver and running back.
On defense, the Utes have holes to fill in the secondary. Special teams vacancies include finding a new kicker and a long snapper.
Utah opens camp Friday, July 28 and kicks off the season Aug. 31 at home against North Dakota.
Here are five storylines to follow throughout Ute fall camp.
1. Offensive adjustments
It remains to be seen if Utah’s offense will soar like the Eastern Washington Eagles did with Taylor last season. He coached the quarterbacks and served as co-offensive coordinator of a team that went 12-2 and reached the FCS semifinals.
Under Taylor’s watch, quarterback Gage Gubrund racked up an FCS record 5,160 yards passing in 2016. He threw 48 touchdown passes. EWU led the nation with 401 yards passing per game.
When asked to describe Utah’s offense under Taylor, Whittingham said the Utes have gone “from a spread to a spread.”
It’s just a little different version, he explained.
The spread principles will be very similar in the run game. The pass game will include some new concepts.
When Taylor was hired in January, he said that creating success for the quarterback will be the utmost priority.
“If your QB plays well, you have a great chance of winning. Therefore, the development of his fundamentals and skill set are vital,” he added. “However, it is just as imperative to have an offensive system that is both dynamic and user-friendly.”
2. The quarterbacks
Quarterbacks Tyler Huntley, Troy Williams and Cooper Bateman pass during a University of Utah football practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 25, 2017 | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Although Troy Williams started all 13 games last season, there’s no guarantee he’ll continue to be the guy under Taylor. At the end of spring ball, Whittingham noted that Williams and backup Tyler Huntley may have some serious competition from Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman.
“It’s going to be interesting this fall. I mean, he has got a shot,” Whittingham said. “We’ll see what happens in fall camp.”
While making it clear that three quarterbacks won’t be able to get reps in camp for too long, Whittingham stated that Bateman will get enough to show what he can do.
Williams and Bateman have only one year of eligibility remaining. Huntley, meanwhile, is a sophomore who saw very limited action last season.
Regardless of the outcome, Utah’s starting quarterback won’t have a lot of experienced weapons at his disposal. The top returnees at running back are sophomore Zack Moss (382 yards) and junior Armand Shyne (373 yards). Junior Raelon Singleton is the only receiver with 20 or more receptions in 2016. He had 27 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns.
3. Restocking the O-line
The NFL showed great appreciation for Utah’s offensive line with the drafting of Garett Bolles (Broncos), Isaac Asiata (Dolphins), J.J. Dielman (Bengals) and Sam Tevi (Chargers).
The departures, obviously, have left a sizable void up front. The cupboard, though, isn’t completely empty.
Uhatafe is the top returnee. The three-year starter at right guard is slated to move a spot over to tackle as a senior.
Junior Jackson Barton (6-7, 312) could replace Bolles at left tackle, while senior Lo Falemaka is ticketed to be the center. Sophomore Darrin Paulo and junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva headline the cast of candidates at guard.
Whittingham said the Utes have helped themselves through recruiting on the offensive line — building some depth in recent years.
“It’s now time for those younger guys to step up and get their opportunity,” he noted. Sophomore tackle Johnny Capra is among the the up-and-comers to keep an eye on.
Utah gave up 27 sacks last season, ranking sixth in the Pac-12 in terms of protection.
4. Secondary shuffle
Graduation losses and an early departure to the NFL have taken quite a toll on Utah’s secondary. Strong safety Chase Hansen (pictured), a junior, is the only returning starter. He made a team-high 90 tackles in 2016.
Junior college standout Corrion Ballard was brought in to replace free safety Marcus Williams, who gave up his senior season and was drafted by the New Orleans Saints.
The cornerback spots and the nickel back position will also be held by new faces. Brian Allen, Dominique Hatfield and Reggie Porter have moved on at cornerback, while Justin Thomas is no longer around at nickel.
Projected candidates to replace them include sophomore Julian Blackmon, junior Tareke Lewis and redshirt freshman Nygel King at right corner. On the left side, juniors Casey Hughes and Tyrone Smith are expected to compete with freshman Jaylon Johnson for the starting job.
Senior Boobie Hobbs and sophomore Terrell Burgess top the chart at nickel back.
“There’s not a lot of experience back there,” Whittingham said of the secondary. “But we think we’ve got a group that has got a lot of upside.”
5. Kicks and snaps
Special teams have been quite special for the Utes in recent years. Tom Hackettwon back-to-back Ray Guy Awards as the nation’s top punter. Mitch Wishnowsky kept the streak alive last season and is back for his junior year.
While that position continues to be covered, the same can’t be said for kicker and long snapper. Utah is seeking replacements for consistent stalwarts Andy Phillipsand Chase Dominguez, who have graduated.
The competition for primary kicking duties pits true freshman Chayden Johnston, a former Bingham High star and a recently returned LDS Church missionary, against sophomore Hayes Hicken and junior walk-on Cristian Antezana.
Whittingham said it’ll be “an open competition” this fall.
At long snapper, three guys are reportedly in the mix to replace Dominguez— seniors Harrison Handley and Alex Whittingham, as well as sophomore John Aloma.
“So that’s another challenge to get that part of the puzzle solved and we think we’ve got some good answers,” Whittingham said earlier this summer. “But it’s guys that haven’t done it at this level yet.”