After just over two weeks of fall camp, the Utah coaching staff has a good idea of what the team's strengths and weaknesses are, with some gray areas peppered in between. Too late to make sweeping changes to address weaknesses, the gray areas are the key to the Utes' season.
A strong showing against an FCS opponent, however strong, isn't going to be the tell-tell for the Utes. Instead, the Utes will need to focus on their own game, and moving the gray areas into the solid column.
The Offensive Line Must Come Together
With a rotating door of offensive linemen throughout camp, whoever the Utes put on the field Thursday must step up and become the solution. The additional two days the Utes have to prepare for next week's opponent, USC, won't be enough to break in a new face to the line. Whether Vyncent Jones, Sam Brenner, Jeremiah Tofaeono or Kapua Sai, one (or two) need to emerge so that the Utes can fully utilize the next nine days implementing a game plan, not teaching and building chemistry.
Like beating a drum, Kyle Whittingham and Norm Chow have searched for and called for offensive consistency. The Utes aren't looking to reach a scoring threshold in order to measure success. The score will take care of itself as long as the offense performs consistently and efficiently. The Utes will look for sustained, penalty-free drives and to consistently move the ball as the measuring stick to gauge progress.
Mistakes from youngsters Dres Anderson and Ken Scott and newcomer John White will be forgiven, but the Utes are looking for their veteran leaders Devonte Christopher, Luke Matthews, Kendrick Moeai to have clean, mistake-free games. Jordan Wynn in particular will be expected to show poise and leadership in making the right decisions, particularly as plays break down.
From special teams to receivers to running backs, the Utes have placed an extremely heavy emphasis on ball security through the off-season. In addition to speed, toughness and physicality, ball security was among the primary focal points in Utah's three losses to upper tier teams last season.
The issue was low-key in terms of media coverage through fall camp but was prominent in the minds of Utah players. Signs throughout the Utah football facility remind of the significance of ball security, and is a talking point at every meeting. Regardless of score, offensive line play or any other issue, make no mistake, Kyle Whittingham is looking for ball security out of his team Thursday night.
Reliance on Kicking Game
At least first or second on the list of things to get resolved in their home opener is whether or not this team can rely on Coleman Petersen or Nick Marsh. Early missed opportunities by the place kickers will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The subsequent game plan for USC will be influenced by Thursday's performance, which is a rare and early situation the Utes are unaccustomed to as it poses conference championship implications. As such, the Utes can't afford to wait for Marsh or Petersen to work out the kinks, iron out the wrinkles or get hot. The performance of the place kickers will be evaluated on a week to week basis, but the Utes will have no choice but to embark down a certain path based on Week 1 performance.
Discipline on Defense
With youth and inexperience in the secondary, coaches Morgan Scalley and Jay Hill will look for their squads to remain disciplined against a scrambling quarterback who has the ability to either keep plays alive, or make big plays with his legs, both of which should fully test the Utes' discipline.
Across the board on defense, tackling was another big issue hanging over the team last season and just as big a focus going into the 2011 season. Again, the final score on the board won't be an indicator of success or failure for the Utes, but the little things such as good, solid fundamental tackling, technique and other detail-oriented aspects of the game will be the things that count in the evaluating process.
It is those little things that will help the already talented defensive line apply more pressure on Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee, which was also an area the Utes wanted improvement. However, as McGehe gets flushed out of the pocket, the Utes will need to discipline to stay home in order to contain him on the outside.