1. The Dave Christensen era
Utah’s offense is putting its collective foot on the accelerator. New offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who oversaw Missouri’s high-powered scheme from 2001-08, is now behind the wheel of the Utes' offense.
“It’s been a seamless transition,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who referred to Christensen as one of the pioneers of the spread offense when he hired his former Idaho State colleague in December. He also called him innovative and the architect of one of the top offenses in the nation.
"We feel fortunate he was available and interested in joining our program, and he will be a great fit with our staff,” Whittingham said in making the announcement. “We want an explosive offense and that's been a trademark of Dave's throughout his career as an offensive coordinator."
The Utes ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (29.2 ppg) and third-down conversions last season. They were 11th in first downs, pass efficiency and total offense.
Utah’s starting quarterback faced an uncertain future after being diagnosed with an intracranial artery injury. He missed the final three games of 2013 and didn’t receive full medical clearance to resume playing again until June 24.
“We’re just moving forward as though he’s 100 percent,” Whittingham said at Pac-12 media days.
Wilson has 21 games of experience (16 as a starter). He’s thrown for 3,138 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career.
The 6-foot-7 junior, who participated in noncontact drills last spring, enters fall camp on top of a deep depth chart at quarterback. Wilson’s challengers for the starting job include Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, redshirt freshman Conner Manning and junior Adam Schulz.
Utah hasn’t had a quarterback start and finish a season since 2008 when Brian Johnson led the Utes to a 13-0 record and a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s been a tough run in that respect,” Whittingham said.
Three projected starters have returned after missing all or most of last season with injuries.
Senior safety Brian Blechen, who was sidelined for the entire 2013 campaign, is back and should provide an immediate impact. He certainly did in his previous seasons with the Utes — earning freshman All-America recognition and three honorable mention all-conference awards. In 35 career games, Blechen has 203 tackles (119 solo) and eight interceptions.
Junior wide receiver Kenneth Scott was injured early in the season opener against Utah State and never returned. His comeback should take a big load off of teammate Dres Anderson and give the Utes another talented target to toss it to. Scott has appeared in 23 games, making 40 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior tight end Westlee Tonga suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game last year. He’s a veteran of 25 games with seven receptions for 79 yards and a score.
Almost every position on Utah’s offense will have different oversight than a year ago. Besides Christensen, who in addition to his coordinator duties will also coach the tight ends, the Utes have added new assistants in Jim Harding (offensive line) and Taylor Stubblefield (wide receivers). Aaron Roderick has shifted assignments — moving from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach this season.
The lone position group returnee is running backs coach Dennis Erickson.
“There’s no egos in the room. All we want to do is win. So it’s fun,” Christensen said during spring ball. “We’re all on the same page and it’s exciting to come out here and kind of see how things are when we put it all together on the practice field.”
The mass staff changes were brought about by the departures of co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson (Mississippi State), tight ends coach Jay Hill (Weber State) and offensive line coach Dan Finn (UC Davis).
As is the case every season, there are several newcomers that could make an immediate impact. Wide receiver Kaelin Clay and safety Tevin Carter join the program with one year of eligibility. Both players enter camp on the depth chart.
Junior college transfer Devontae Booker is expected to be a factor at running back. He had a strong spring and will contend with Bubba Poole for carries.
On the offensive line, redshirt freshman Salesi Uhatafe is the front-runner at right guard.
Defensively, junior Jason Fanaika, who redshirted last season after transferring from Utah State, is listed as a co-starter with Hunter Dimick at right end. Linebacker Gionni Paul, a transfer from Miami, is coming off an injury in spring ball.
Another new addition to keep an eye on is Thompson at quarterback. The transfer from Oklahoma is going to get a lot of reps early in camp to show the coaches what he can do. True freshman quarterback Donovan Isom is also intriguing.