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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #28 Utah

by DJ Boyer on Aug. 3, 2015

#28 Utah Utes

2014 Recap
A 9-4 season  was not in the cards in the eyes of many prognosticators for Utah during 2014. Utah capped off their wildly successful campaign with a convincing 45-10 victory over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The biggest win during the regular season had to come on the road against UCLA in a game that went back and forth and was one of the most entertaining of the entire year in any conference.

Coaching:
Kyle Whittingham has flown under the national radar for a few seasons but has done a wonderful job at Utah. Whittingham has led a successful transition within the Pac-12 and during his 10-year tenure the Utes are 85-43. This season will be challenging, as the two main coordinators under Whittingham are brand new after leaving for Texas A&M and Oregon State respectively. Actually the offensive coordinator spot is now a two-headed monster as Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick will share the role. John Pease moves up from being the defensive line coach to the coordinator. Pease actually spent a pair of seasons in the NFL as the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars previous to coming to Utah.

 

Offense Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:
An interesting quandary has arisen at quarterback. Travis Wilson was the starter for most of the year, but the Utes also used Kendal Thompson effectively. Thompson is a transfer from Oklahoma, and the offense seemed to have a better overall flow with him at the controls last year before a leg injury took him off the field for good. Wilson is the better pro prospect and passer. At 6’7” and close to 240 pounds he has the NFL size and strength teams are looking for at the next level.

The offense just seemed to react better with Thompson because the running attack blossomed, and it showcased running back Devontae Booker. Booker wisely came back to school for his senior season, and he is a legitimate Heisman candidate to open the year. Booker had put up 292-1512-10 a season ago for a 5.2 YPC clip, and his 43-306-2 numbers catching the football prove he is far from being one-dimensional. Booker looks to be the top senior running back available in the 2016 Draft, and he has the perfect blend of size and strength to be a three-down back on Sundays at the NFL level.

Best Draft Prospect: Devontae Booker RB 3rd Round 2016.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
The biggest knock against the offense has to be the inexperience at wideout and the loss of Kaelin Clay, one that will also hurt the return game. Kenneth Scott is the top returning receiver, as he totaled 48 catches a season ago. Scott led the team in catches, but Clay was able to stretch the field and provide more big plays. Just the threat of the big play seemed top open things up for Booker and the running game. Most of the catches and damage made by Scott came at the expense of Utah losing Dres Anderson to injury for a large portion of last year. The son of former NFL receiver Flipper Anderson was the most talented on the roster, but like Clay he too is gone. Bubba Poole and Tim Patrick will be the other starters with Scott, and combined a season ago this duo totaled 28 catches, none of which resulted in a touchdown.

Utah doesn’t utilize the tight end often in the passing game so Wilson and the offense will need someone to really step up in 2015.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

Offensive Line:
The offensive line is largely unproven, but Utah has scored some major wins in recruiting over the last few seasons. Now we will see if it paid off. Salesi Uhatafe is a returning starter at right guard and someone that Devontae Booker loves to follow into the hole. Isaac Asiata and J.J. Dielman are back along the left side of the line, and center Siaosi Aiono is the lone senior and a player who has shown steady progress. This line is built for the running game which is why we felt Kendal Thompson may be the better quarterback for the offense based upon his mobility. Jackson Barton is an incoming freshman that could see some time immediately for the Utes, and it looks like he can play multiple positions.

Best Draft Prospect: Salesi Uhatafe OG 5th Round 2018.

 

Defense Analysis

Defensive Line:
Nate Orchard may have left for the NFL but he wasn’t the only player along the line that could get after the quarterback. Utah may have ranked 58th overall in total defense, but their 55 sacks led the NCAA, and at 1.42 per game Orchard had the most per game. Hunter Dimick totaled 10 sacks on the side opposite Orchard and had a total of 14.5 tackles for loss. Dimick will be a highly sought after prospect, but he could stay beyond his junior season to show his true value.

While Dimick grades out as a 3rd rounder and someone who may be the highest draftee, Lowell Lotulelei at defensive tackle may be the best player overall on the defensive side of the ball. Lotulelei took over the job at defensive tackle just a few games into his freshman season, and he is quickly showing why he may end up in the NFL like his brother Star, a first round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2013. In fact 10 of the 12 starters from a season ago are back, and the only two not returning are Nate Orchard and Eric Rowe. Both Rowe and Orchard were selected during the 2nd round of this past draft, so that should show you the defensive standing for Utah heading into the season. Utah operates out of the traditional 4-3, but they will drop some of their defensive ends into coverage or interchange them with the outside linebackers on occasion in order to confuse opposing offenses.

Best Draft Prospect: Hunter Dimick DE 3rd Round 2017.

 

Linebackers:
At linebacker Utah is adequate with plenty of experience as evidenced with three seniors in place to start. Jared Norris led the team with 116 stops, but outside linebacker Jason Whittingham when healthy is a very intriguing prospect. Whittingham is more like an extra defensive end, while Norris is the solid run stuffer that patrols the middle of the field. Gionni Paul had a breakout season with 61 tackles, but he actually led the team with four interceptions as well. With another year of multiple interceptions we could see the draft ceiling for Paul go up, and at 225 pounds one has to wonder if teams start to think of him as more of a strong safety.

If there is one player to keep an eye on it has to be Clarence Smith. Smith was used in the secondary and then tried at defensive end before Utah finally settled on him being a linebacker. Smith is an athlete who will help on special teams, but we could see his playing time increased spelling at end and linebacker.

Best Draft Prospect: Jared Norris LB 5th Round 2016.

 

Secondary:
This is an interesting bunch, because even though they lost Eric Rowe they should be stronger than a season ago. Tevin Carter was granted an extra year of eligibility after going down in the fourth game of the season in 2014. Carter was making a lot of big plays before the injury, and he will play one safety spot while Jason Thompson plays the other. Thompson sat out last season after transferring from Wyoming where he was a quarterback. With a year of secondary practice under his belt Thompson could be the defensive newcomer of the year for the Pac-12.

Justin Thomas can be a key reserve at cornerback or safety, although with his 5’8” frame the safety position offers Thomas a wee bit more latitude. Reggie Porter will step into the cornerback slot left open by Rowe, while Dominique Hatfield is back after 38 tackles and a team-high 10 passes defensed. This is a very deep unit, and a deep secondary comes in handy when playing in the Pac-12.

Best Draft Prospect: Tevin Carter S UFA 2016.

 

Special Teams:
It’s one thing to have a dominant punter or a dominant kicker, but Utah has the luxury of having both. Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett are not only the best in the Pac-12 at what they do, we currently have both ranked as top five players overall at their positions from the entire NCAA pool. Phillips was 23-28 last season and a perfect 2-2 on 50 yard conversions (hitting against Michigan and Arizona State). Hackett needs to be a little more consistent with his hang time, but his 46.7 average last season placed him near the top of the leaderboard at the NCAA level. We talked about Kaelin Clay and how he would be missed in the return game, and that is an understatement since he contributed four touchdowns a season ago. It doesn’t matter who Utah uses to returns kicks and punts it will be a dropoff from the magical season Clay delivered in 2014.

Best Draft Prospect: Andy Phillips K 7th Round 2016.

 

2015 Schedule

A pair of tough home games open the schedule with Michigan and Utah State. Utah thrashed Michigan in “The Big House” last year, but you can bet Jim Harbaugh would like his Michigan debut to be memorable. Utah has to play back-to-back road games twice with a set against Fresno State and Oregon and then Washington and Arizona. This isn’t an easy schedule, and Utah may not equal their win total from a season ago, but they promise to be competitive. With a few breaks they could find themselves in the Pac-12 title game.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

Devontae Booker is the obvious draw here, and he could get a crack at 2,000 yards. If Booker gets near or eclipses that magical mark he could elevate his stock above his current third round prospect standing. Lowell Lotulelei and Hunter Dimick are both underclassmen who could get the itch for the league early if they have standout seasons. Utah always has solid linemen that can be had in the later rounds of the draft, and there should be two to three currently on the roster. We will have to see how things shake out.