Down to mere hours to kickoff, Ute fans are eagerly awaiting the start of the 2012 football season, and more importantly, to get a look at the finished product Kyle Whittingham will put on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday evening. After observing an efficient, productive fall camp, here is UteZone's blueprint for what fans might expect to see through the course of the Utes' second go-round in the Pac-12.
Prediction One: Improved Offensive Production
With injuries and turnovers rampant, the 2011 offense finished ranked 109th in the nation in total offense with an average of 310.8 yards per game. With nowhere but up to go, it doesn't take an expert to predict an improvement in Utah's production. Senior John White is the security blanket for the Utah offense, but he won't take anyone by surprise this season. Pac-12 defenses undoubtedly know his name, and are familiar with what he can do on the field. Expect a productive season out of White, but not as productive statistics-wise as 2011.
Fortunately, the Utes now have a passing game to go with White's ground attack, and Jordan Wynn and the Utes will now be two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional. A few wrinkles and interesting personnel packages can only help make things easier for White.
Even with questions on the offensive line and sheerly by balancing things out, look for Utah's offense to make a significant jump up in total offense rankings, hovering around the midway mark in ranking somewhere in the no. 50 to no. 60 range this season. If properly utilized, Utah has too many weapons for a defense to account for, and the Utes have a new offensive coordinator in Brian Johnson who understands that.
Johnson has shown as a player that he has a solid understanding of today's game and his tenure is promising, if for no other reason than that he's likely to stay at Utah, providing stability to a previously unsettled position on the Ute coaching staff. While the product on-field through camp was positive, and Johnson's players have bought in fully to what the young coach is doing, he will hit road blocks, as he has yet to call a single game as a coach. Certainly, developing a feel for calling a game is an acquired skill and one that takes time. With good instincts, and the input of other experienced offensive minds around him, Johnson will do well, but look for rough patches along the way.
Since being named offensive coordinator, Johnson has cited his many influences, including Andy Ludwig, the former Ute offensive coordinator who oversaw Johnson's tutelage as a player. Ludwig revealed a tendency to go extremely conservative in tight games, or through large middle portions of games, and Johnson may have picked up that tendency from his experience with Ludwig. Conversely, going too aggressive to compensate for big momentum shifts in games could also haunt the young coordinator, and how he manages the emotional highs and lows of games remains to be seen.
Inexperience in this one aspect notwithstanding, Johnson's offense is designed to reveal, or maximize mismatches in the defense, and the Utes should come out ahead more often than not. Look for red-zone offense to continue to be an Achilles Heel for the Utes, however, as the Utes have not yet shown that they found an answer for that area of weakness. In the same vein, third-down conversions and penalties were also weaknesses for Utah last season, and both are key factors to an offensive turnaround for the Utes this season. Should they resolve these lingering issues, Utah could find itself in the midst of a special year.
A healthy, confident and prepared Jordan Wynn helps to bolster the assertion, and Wynn may yet enjoy his first full season as a DI quarterback.
Prediction Two: Utes Will Be Tops in Pass Efficiency Defense
One of the surprises of 2011 was the quality of play Utah got from its secondary, in particular the corners. On paper, losing the speedy Conroy Black to graduation hurt the 2012 prospects for this unit, however, for "cornerback U", replacing Black won't be a problem. With starters Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee, the Utes enjoy confidence, experience and speed that won't drop off from the impressive outing Black enjoyed last season. Last season, the Utes finished third in the Pac-12 in that category.
With young, talented and speedy backups Tyler White, Lewis Walker and Wykie Freeman, as well as veteran Reggie Topps and Mike Honeycutt in the mix at the nickel position, the Utes' secondary will be as good as last season through the air, but is hugely improved in stopping the run.
Look for the Utes to finish improved in this key category again, after finishing third in the Pac-12 in run defense. With a reputation for great run defense, opposing offenses will look to the air to loosen up the Utah front seven, giving the secondary plenty of looks throughout the season. This group should also be near the top of the conference in passes defended, and pass breakups, and will jump in total pass efficiency defense, where they finished 6th in conference play last season.
Prediction Three: Special Teams Will Be Pivotal
Any knowledgeable football fan understands the importance of special teams play, no matter how over-looked or under-appreciated it may be. For the Utes, special teams will play an even more significant role in the outcome of the Utes' season.
In regards to questions about the kicking game, the one consistency over the past two years has been inconsistency. Coleman Petersen has demonstrated the physical capacity to execute key kicks, but the mental aspect of the kicking game loom large with the junior kicker. Not likely to iron out the kinks completely, hope that Petersen's misses aren't too untimely or costly. Conversely, he'll surprise by nailing a kick most expect him to miss in a repeat performance of last season.
While punt return coverage is solid, there are chinks in the armor in the kick return coverage game, and the big plays need to be minimized, especially against the top-shelf talent USC will bring to Salt Lake City on October 4 in key Pac-12 showdown.
Look for punt returners Charles Henderson and Geoff Norwood to put on a show this season, drastically changing the face of games via field position. Equally exciting, but limited due to a new NCAA kick off rule, DeVonte Christopher and Reggie Dunn will look for rare opportunities to make returns.
Expect the Utes' starting average field position to improve thanks to these two burners, in what could be an X factor for the Utes, especially if the Utes get the type of down-field blocking it got from the likes of Greg Bird two seasons ago. Bird indelibly left his mark on the special teams unit, making a name for himself by putting down would-be tacklers, giving his return man the daylight he needed in order to make a play. Since leaving his mark, that unit has tried to live up to that name as a source of pride. Recently absent, a return to that mind-set could be in store for this group.
The Utes have an excellent punter in Sean Sellwood, who is a luxury given his solid, and consistent play. In addition to Sellwood, however, the Utes have added an extra element to the punt game with the addition of kicker Tom Hackett. In the absence of a long-distance kicking game, the Utes now have an additional option in Hackett, who has proven adept at punting from around mid-field and downing the ball inside the ten yard line, or even the five yard line.
Down the line, the Utes should win the field position battle almost constantly. On the biggest, most competitive stage in college football, any advantage helps and the Utes have greedily hoarded several weapons to help them gain them in the special teams arena.
Look for a returned kick for a touchdown this season, but be prepared for the Utes to give one up, as well.
Prediction Four: Increased and Improved Pass Rush
Bad news for any opposing Pac-12 quarterback, the Utes will bring an improved pass rush to the table, and can do it with its down four lineman, freeing up linebackers and secondary to stay home in coverage, or to make tackles in the box. Mixing up looks and personnel, the Utes will bring pressure from everywhere and will be rewarded in the form of more sacks, but bear in mind that their aggression can, and will be used against them. Look for more screen passes from opposing teams to counteract the rush, and hope that Ute linebackers stay disciplined when it happens.
Utah was fifth in the conference with 20 sacks during conference play, and 29th in the nation with 30 total sacks for the season.
With a few tricks up their sleeve, as well as the luxury of pass rush specialists like Trevor Reilly allow the Utes to confuse quarterbacks with deceiving initial looks. Don't be surprised to see Ute defensive ends with an interception, or two this season.
Prediction Five: Turnover Margin Turnaround
2011 was wrought with costly and untimely turnovers, and the Utes suffered through a season where the defense was repeatedly put in bad positions, thanks to the offense's many mishaps. In conference play, Utah was at zero in turnover margin, handing the ball over to opponents 20 times, and taking it back again another 20.
While the Ute defense pulled through more often than not, it could only do so much. Look for the Ute offense to become a solid ball security team in 2012, and look for the faster, youthful and more aggressive defense to turn the ball over more than in 2011.
A resourceful and hungry group, the Ute defense carries a swagger that comes from leading the Pac-12 in most statistical categories in 2011. As such, this group has no questions about whether or not it can compete week in and week out in a BCS conference. That confidence, by all accounts, is the difference maker for Kalani Sitake's group coming into this season.