Bleeding Red: If the O can go, Utes will be tough to beat in 2015

Hail, Utah, hail to thee, with joy we sing thy praise.
To thee dear Alma Mater, our grateful voices raise;
Noble thy destiny, and worthy thine acclaims.

Treasured in memory, thy loved and honored name.
Treasured in memory, thy loved and honored name.

COMMENTARY — Nope, I didn’t make that up. I was looking through some of my father’s things and found the program from when he graduated from Utah more than half a century ago in 1958. The words to “Hail, Utah!” were printed in the program (I’m guessing because it was sung at the ceremony).

utesWhile the words to the above song do resonate with me on a certain level, I relate much more to Jon Bon Jovi who so famously sang, “I don’t need no needle to be giving me a thrill,” just give me college football and a game on The Hill! Come Thursday night, “Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight,” because we’re going to be lighting the “U” that night!

That’s right, this Thursday I’ll be Wang-Chung-ing up on The Hill as Utah hosts Michigan for what head coach Kyle Whittingham has described as “the biggest game in Utah football history, for an opener.”

“We have a very experienced group coming back this year,” Whittingham said. “If there is ever a year you want to play a high-profile game like this as an opener, it’s with a group of guys that are long on experience.”

It’s only appropriate that a season carrying such big expectations should kick-off with a big-name game. After posting a 9-4 record, including the Utes’ best record in the Pac-12 thus far, capped off by a dominant Las Vegas Bowl victory, Utah fans are licking their chops and hungry for more.

So can this year’s team live up to the hype? I think so, and this is why.

Tom Hackett
Tom Hackett

Each game begins with a kickoff, so let’s start with the Utes’ kicking game. Punter Tom Hackett and placekicker Andy Phillips have to be the best kicking duo in the country. Hackett was the 2014 Ray Guy Award winner (for the best punter in the nation) and a consensus All-American. Phillips was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and Lou Groza semifinalist (for the best placekicker in the nation).

Football has been described as a game of inches. Inches, feet and yards do matter, and Utah’s kicking game commonly affords the Utes good field position as Hackett routinely pins opponents inside their own 20-yard line (and often inside the 10). If the offense can advance the ball any appreciable distance across midfield, there’s a good chance that, at the very least, Phillips is going to hang three points on the board.

Although explosive kick-returner Kaelin Clay has graduated, freshman Britain Covey out of Timpview High School in Provo has already made his mark and earned the right to return kicks opening night. At 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds, he is not going to run over too many people, but he has cat-like reflexes and a burst of speed that will make him difficult to catch.

Year in and year out the Utes’ defense is the cornerstone of the team, and this year is no different. Even with the loss of such notable players as Nate Orchard, Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen, Utah has simply reloaded and will field as good of a defense as it has ever had.

Last year the Utes led the nation in sacks and earned the moniker Sack Lake City. Expect that to continue this year. I’m waiting for someone to emerge as the Sandman, who regularly puts opposing quarterbacks to sleep. Leading candidates are end Hunter Dimick, tackle Lowell Lotulelei and linebacker Jared Norris.

Even with John Pease stepping in as the new defensive coordinator, Utah’s defense will not miss a beat. Make no mistake about it, regardless of who is filling the shoes of DC, the defense will always have Whittingham’s fingerprints all over it. Pease did provide one of my favorite quotes from fall camp in describing his defensive interior linemen as “salt of the earth, coal miners down in the pit, digging, working — we’ve got four real nice kids inside.”

The real bellwether this year for the Utes will be its offense. This team is ready to go as far as its offense can take it.

It is very trendy to say that defenses win championships. However, at the end of the day, unless you have an offense that can regularly put points on the board, your defense can only take you so far. That is particularly true in the Pac-12 and the many prolific offenses that Utah will face. Any game in which the Ute defense can hold opponents to less than 20 points, I’d say the defense has done its job. Accordingly, Utah’s offense has to consistently put 20-plus points on the board to come out on top.

The offensive line is rock solid, with four starters returning from what proved to be a stellar unit last year. Running back Devontae Booker has been touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Yes, Booker has the size to run over people, and yes Booker consistently piles up yards after contact, but it is the running lanes initially plowed for him by an outstanding offensive line that allows him to build up the steam necessary to do the damage beyond the line of scrimmage.

The Utes running game is unquestionably going to be strong. However, Utah needs a balanced approach with an effective passing game in order to keep 11 defenders out of the box with the sole goal of shutting down Booker. When all is said and done, the real wild card is going to be the passing game. If the passing game is good, this team has the potential to be great; if the passing game struggles, then so will this team in the buzz saw schedule of the Pac-12 South (arguably the toughest division in all of college football).

The receiving corps will be anchored by a handful of veterans, most notably senior Kenneth Scott. However, a lot newcomers are also going to see substantial playing time. This group has both size and speed, and will provide plenty of quality targets for the quarterback.

Utah QB Travis Wilson | Photo by Tom Smart/Utah Sports Information
Utah QB Travis Wilson | Photo by Tom Smart/Utah Sports Information

And finally, there’s the quarterback position itself. Travis Wilson is expected to be the starter. Normally, a four-year starting quarterback would be cause for celebration and high expectations. However, the fact that he is being pushed, and pushed hard, for the starting position by fellow senior Kendal Thompson, tells you Wilson is not the dominant player you would expect a four-year starter to be.

“It’s no secret, we need to throw the ball better to help Devontae Booker out,” Whittingham said at Monday’s press conference. “Travis is our starter. It was tight, but Travis played the best in our estimation.”

In Wilson’s defense, he has played for a different offensive coordinator every year of his collegiate career, and this year is no different as Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding take over the reigns as co-offensive coordinators. The good news is that Thompson is pushing Wilson to be better, and if he isn’t, then Thompson will supplant him as the starter as Thompson did last year until he went down with a season-ending injury against Oregon.

The bottom line is that if Utah can get consistent and quality play out of the quarterback position, this team is poised to make its mark and challenge for a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Here’s hoping they take the first step of this season’s journey with a big win over Michigan on Thursday.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.


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Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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