Thursday, August 18. 2011
Posted by Sideshow in Red, Blue And Pigskin
In 1990, Ron McBride took over a program he would refer to as "soft", "underachieving", and "going nowhere". The program was so down that when it came to expectations he was told "Well, if you cannot embarrass us against BYU and be in about the middle of the league, and be respectable you can stay here as long as you want."
He didn't even have to win against BYU, just not be embarrassed. To say that the bar at Utah was set low, would be an understatement. The bar was so low, that they don't even bury dead people that low.
What Ron McBride ended up doing, was making those "middle of the league, and be respectable" expectations no longer acceptable at the University of Utah.
On September 1st, the University of Utah finishes the journey that Coach Mac Started. A journey that was picked up by Urban Meyer, and then Kyle Whittingham. But make no mistake, this turnaround, this entry in the Pac-12 got it's start in 1990 with the hiring of Coach Ron McBride.
Now that the Utes are a part of the Big Boy Club, all eyes are on them to see how they will compete. Fairly or not, this first season for Utah will be scrutinized like none before it. It is not a stretch to say that 2011 is the most important season in Utah football history. So what can we expect from this team?
An Internet Search, A Referral Phone Call, And An Overhaul
In October, the University of Minnesota fired their head coach. This typically means that the assistants are expendable as well. Tim Davis was the offensive line coach at Minnesota. Trying to be helpful, his wife was on the internet trying to find opportunities. She noticed that the Utes were in the market for an Offensive line coach. She knew that her husband had ties to the University, having not only attended there in the 80's, but also serving as an Offensive Line coach in the mid 90's. She also knew that her husband had ties to current head coach Kyle Whittingham, so she talked her husband into calling him.
Expecting to just leave a message, instead Tim Davis actually got a hold of Coach Whit, and they were able to talk, and Davis expressed his interest in the job. Coach Whit knew that part of the transition into the Pac-12 would be dealing with bigger, faster defensive linemen, and having someone who had experience at that level would be a bonus.
However Coach Whit, wanted to do a little bit of due diligence first. Knowing that Coach Davis worked with Norm Chow at Southern California, Coach Whittingham called up then current UCLA, and former USC Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow to get a referral for Tim Davis.
During this referral call, the topic of the Offense at Utah came up. The topic of discontent and disagreements between Chow, and UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel also came up. Chow expressed interest in joining the Utes as Offensive Coordinator.
In what seemed like a surprise out of nowhere, the spread offense is now on it's way out, and Norm Chow, with help from Tim Davis, are introducing a more pro-style, downhill running game oriented Offense. In all actuality though, this is a move that Coach Whittingham may actually have been moving towards for the past few years.
When Urban Meyer took the Florida job, he left behind players and a system that were part of a highly specialized offense. The spread formation had taken over College Football, and it wasn't an offensive philosophy that blended well with other systems.
Seven years later, it was time for a change. Fear not though, because in all honesty the change isn't going to be a severe as one would think. This is mainly because the Utes have been slowly fading out the Spread for a few years. I believe the reason that the Utes were so reluctant to start Wynn in '09, was because the plan was for Terrance Cain to start for two years, Wynn to redshirt in '08, with all eyes focused on a pro-style offense this season.
In High School Wynn played in a pro-style offense. That's why he will have an an easier adjustment to Norm Chow's offense than many expect. Also part of the recruiting of the past few years includes, Tyler Shreve, a pro-style QB, and the re-emergence of the tight end at Utah. A position that Urban all but decimated during his two year stint.
Does this mean the days of the high scoring, long passes are gone from the Utah offense? What about these rumors of a West Coast mentality being introduced?
Worry not. There will be three main differences between this offense and the offense we've been seeing the last few years.
First, and most obvious, the shotgun will be minimized. Instead we will see Wynn line up under the center, with the running backs sitting in some semblance of an I-Formation. As mentioned before, this is the type of offense Wynn ran in High School, so it's something he's comfortable with.
Secondly, running plays will be actual running plays. Eddie Wide III, Matt Asiata, and Darrel Mack have done outstanding at the running back position the past few years. The thing is, they didn't run many actual running plays. Instead Utah insisted on running the Zone-Read option play. Considering that Wynn is not much of a runner, and therefore not much of a threat to actually keep the ball, this is a smart move. Instead there will be actual running plays (dives, tosses, stretches, etc.) that will open up the passing game via play action passes.
Finally, the Tight End position is going to be used more often. And considering that the Utes have the best tight end in the state in Kendrick Moeai, this will be a real weapon for the Utes.
Other than that most of the changes will be hard to recognize. You can still expect the Utes to try and lean on a running game in order to open up the passing game. You can also still expect the Utes to take their chances down the field.
Downhill Run Game
In order to have an effective downhill running game, a team needs a good running back. With the graduations of Asiata, and Wide, the medical retirement of Sausan Shakerin, and the departure from the team for personal reasons of Shawn Asiata and Tauni Vakapuna, the Utes entered spring camp without a single division one carry on their team.
Up for the starting position is Junior College transfer John White IV, True Freshman and the State of Utah's highest rated Recruit Harvey Langi, and Rugby convert and fan favorite Thretton Palamo.
What a difference a couple of camps, and a competition make. At the start of fall camp Vakapuna and Shawn Asiata rejoined the team. As camp has progressed the running back situation has started to shake itself out with two players moving ahead of the pack, while others have struggled a bit.
Right now your starter is going to be John White IV. White is a smaller, speedier back. His backup right now is Vakapuna. Vakapuna is the younger brother of former BYU Fullback Fui Vakapuna. This means Palamo and Langi are battling it out for third.
Now while some might think it's bad that the highly recruited Langi is struggling, I'll tell you why this is actually great news. One of the big differences between High School, and College football for a running back, is how much running backs are required to pick up blitzes. From all accounts this is where Langi, and Palamo are both falling behind. However with White and Vakapuna both looking to have the top 2 spots secured, this will afford the Utes the opportunity to Redshirt either or both of Langi, and Palamo. Redshirting Langi gives him an extra year to develop, remember he's only 18 right now, as well as a year of practicing at the college level. It also gives the Utes an extra year, with what looks to be a very solid running back in the backfield.
Weight On His Shoulders
Commanding the offense will be Junior Quarterback Jordan Wynn. Wynn had a very up and down 2010. Although he put up good numbers early, he was injury prone during the season. Wynn missed two games early due to a thumb injury. Wynn also struggled late in the season thanks to a shoulder surgery sustained against Iowa State.
Wynn is coming into the season after having went through shoulder surgery shortly after the regular season ended. The fate of the season rests on that surgically repaired shoulder. The Utes don't have much of an option for a backup, although Junior College transfer John Hays has surprised some during camp. The Pac-12 is considered the conference of Quarterbacks, and there are definitely some high profile QB's in this conference. Wynn when healthy has shown flashes of being deserving of being mentioned with some of these QB's.
What Utah needs, however is consistency from Wynn. Consistency and health.
Opening Holes And Protecting The Shoulder
One major area of concern for the Utes is on the Offensive Line. The Offensive Line was already pretty shallow depth wise to start camp, and that depth only got worse as the line was beset by injuries. Starting Guard Sam Brenner, someone the coaching staff has been high on for a few years now, but has been injury prone, injured his elbow. His backup, true Freshman Isaac Asiata suffered a High Ankle Sprain.
To assist with the depth issues, the Utes moved Defensive Tackle Latu Heimuli to the Guard spot. Heimuli responded by injuring his thumb and requiring surgery.
The good news is that all three are expected to be back within the next two weeks. However it has shown just how shallow depth on the line is. The first string should be fine, as it's anchored by returning tackles John Wayne Cullen, and Pre-Season All Conference member Tony Bergstrom. But once you get past that first string experience drops drastically.
If the Utes can't block anyone, or can't open any holes for the running game, the season will suffer badly.
The Air Force
For once when I refer to The Air Force I'm not referring the Falcons, who constantly give the Utes fits. Instead I'm referring to the name that the WR corps of the Utes call themselves. And it's a deep corps.
DeVonte Christopher was the leading receiver last year, and looks to pick up in his Junior year, close to where he left off in his Sophomore year. DeVonte was responsible for some of the more jaw dropping, highlight catches of the year. BYU fans will remember one in particular from last year where he tipped the ball from behind a defenders head, and caught it while falling over the defender into the end zone.
The other returning receiver who contributed last year is Luke Matthews. Matthews was the fourth option for the Utes last year, and this year should be targeted more often.
Kendrick Moeai may be a tight end, but he's just as dangerous catching the ball as any of the other WR's. If anyone were betting, I'd say he'd be a safe bet to be the 2nd leading receiver at the end of the year.
After these three come some highly talented youth. Junior college transfer Anthony Denham was impressing before a hamstring tweak in camp and happens to be the tallest WR on the team. Dexter Ransom was the most targeted wide out during the Red/White spring game. Reggie Dunn was the fastest player on the team last year.
But the one I'm most interested in, not only this year, but for the next 4 seasons, is a WR to speaks to the heart of 9 year old me. He also happens to be the fastest player on the team this year.
One Of The Best Nicknames Ever
Pop quiz, name the WR who holds the record for most receiving yards in a game?
There's a lot you WR's you might name, Jerry Rice, the greatest to ever play. What about freak of nature Randy Moss? Surely throw me the Damned Ball Keyshawn Johnson?
Nope, most people would have a hard time name the WR. For me it's easy. See when I was a kid he just happened to be my favorite player, on my favorite team.
Not only that, but his 15 reception, 336 yard record performance against the New Orleans Saints is a clear memory for this Rams fan. I remember very clearly Willie "Flipper" Anderson taking over in that game, and leading the Rams from behind to an overtime victory.
But that's not all. I also remember in 1989 divisional round playoffs the Rams facing the Giants. The game went into overtime. Jim Everett takes the snap, drops back and throws a deep pass. Who should be streaking down the sideline? None other than Flipper Anderson. Flipper not only caught the pass, but he kept running. He ran past the defense, he ran into the end zone, and he didn't stop running until he ran out the back of the end zone and straight into locker room.
Victory secured, the Rams were going to the NFC Championship where they were just one game away from the Super Bowl. Despite the fact, that the evil, reviled, hated 49ers stomped the dreams of a 9 year old boy the next week, the images of Flipper Anderson throughout his NFL career have always stayed with me.
What does this do with the Utes? Turns out that Flipper's son Dres is currently slotted to be the starting Z-Receiver. Dres is a redshirt freshman, and while I'm sure he'll be his own player, watching him every week will transport me back to my 9 year old self, when I was first falling in love with this beautiful game.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
It seems like every fall we're talking about Utah rebuilding their defensive backfield. Over the few years the Utes have had to say goodbye to players like Eric Weddle, Sean Smith, Brice McCain, Brandon Burton, RJ Stanford, and Robert Johnson, all of whom now play on Sundays.
This year is no different, as the Utes will be bringing out 4 new starters in the back field. Graduated are Justin Taplin-Ross and Lamar Chapman. Brandon Burton left a year early to go to the NFL. The lone returning player is super freshman stud Brian Blechen.
Blechen is now the starting stud linebacker.
So once again, Utah must rebuild that backfield.
The starting cornerbacks look to be Conroy Black, and Ryan Lacy. Black is a senior who, unfortunately for him, most Ute fans remember getting burned often and badly versus TCU last year. He obviously wasn't alone, as the entire defense struggled against the Rose Bowl bound Horned Frogs. Ryan Lacy is a sophomore, who's height might worry some. Lacy stands 5'11". Just remember Utah fans, Burton was also 5'11".
At the Safety position it looks like once again a True Freshman is making waves. Eric Rowe is a True Freshman out of Klein, Texas. So far through camp he has also been the news maker, and it looks like he has wrapped up one of the starting safety positions.
Normally this would be a worrisome aspect, but you only need to look at Blechen last year, or any of the long line of defensive backs to come out of the Whittingham defensive system. One thing that has been consistent over the years, is the Utes can produce defensive backs. It's a major reason why they are always able to turn over that back field.
So Strong It Was A Weakness
One major issues the Utah defense has last year was a lack of pressure on the Quarterback. This despite having an extremely deep and talented defensive line. The lack of pressure on the QB allowed the opposing team to get comfortable in the pocket. No pressure lead to opposing QB's being able to pick the defense apart.
The problem was that Utah was extremely talented, and extremely deep on the line. Utah rotated so many defensive linemen trying to keep all of them fresh. Also because all of them were very talented. Problem is, football is a rhythm game. Players get into a rhythm and like to stay in a groove. The Utes rotated between 13 and 16 players on their defensive line last year. All the rotation prevented players from getting into a groove, and prevented the players from getting pressure.
This year, the Utes have drastically cut their rotation. However they remain just as talented. Especially on the interior line where Starr Lotuleilei is considered by many an all conference possibility.
Joe and Dave Kruger return, as does Derrick Shelby, who was hampered by injuries last year. Good news for Utah is that it looks like the Defensive Line depth will be here for a few years. True freshman Nate Fakahafua has been making plays so far in camp, and has, as a defensive lineman, snagged 5 interceptions. Fakahafua won't start, but he is definitely earning some playing time.
Another name to watch on the defense this season will be Trevor Reilly, who may not start, but will make plays.
In fact the Utes may very well have the best defensive line in the entire conference. It's a defensive line that had 11 sacks in the 2nd scrimmage of fall camp. It's not only possibly the best defensive line in the conference, this line, and this defense altogether, with a linebacking corp led by local favorite Brian Blechen, and Tackling machine Chaz Walker, is making a push to be one of the best defenses in Kyle Whittingham's entire tenure at Utah. Something that is no small feat.
New Names, New Faces, New Opponents
Obviously, the most noticeable change for the Utes football program this year, is that they've joined the Pac-12. You can see the new patches on the uniforms. The new logos on the field, the banners around town.
This also means we get to see a new crop of conference opponents. Gone are New Mexico, Wyoming, and thankfully Air Force. Instead the fans will see a new caliber of opponents coming into Rice-Eccles stadium.
Here's how the Utes new Conference foes, even the ones that Utah can only face in the Conference Championship Game, shape up for 2011.
California - The shine may be starting to come off of the Jeff Tedford era in Berkley. 2010 saw the first losing season of Tedford tenure, and many Golden Bear fans are starting to question the continually mediocre offenses of the past few years. Another losing season may not cost Tedford his job, but the seat could be warming up.
Oregon - Coming off of a loss in the National Championship game, the Ducks have had an offseason to forget. The Coach, and players are probably in a hurry to get back to playing football. 2011 could be the year the "Blur" Offense starts to be figured out, but if that happens it probably won't be till the end of the year, and closer to next season. Their last season matchup against Stanford is probably going to decide the Northern Division, and in all honesty the Conference.
Oregon State - The Beavers are probably the hardest team to figure out in the Conference. A Civil War loss away from the Rose Bowl in both '08, and '09 the Beavers struggled last year. James Rogers is the only remaining part of the fantastic Rogers duo still in Corvalis. Hard fighting, and persistent have been the calling card under Mike Riley, and that should continue in '11. The Beavers could be a surprise contender in the North, or be sitting at the bottom of the division.
Stanford - The Cardinal were a 2nd half collapse against Oregon away from a perfect 2010. Following the season their Head Coach bolted for the 49ers, but they were able to stumble into a bit more Luck. As in Andrew Luck, the super QB, and pre season Heisman Favorite deciding to come back for his Senior Year. Luck is by far the class of the conference for QB's. The question around the Cardinal has been how much of their recent success was Harbaugh. It should take a couple years for any dip, if there is one, to occur, which means the Cardinal could be battling the Ducks again for the division.
Washington - Head Coach Steve Sarkisian has done a good job of bringing a renewed sense of belief to the Huskies. One big concern for Washington will be replacing first round draft pick QB Jake Locker. The good news for the Huskies is that they played better last year, when they stopped emphasising Locker so much.
Washington State - The dregs of the Conference for the past few years, with a total of 5 wins over the past three season. However an out of conference schedule that is fairly favorable has some in Pulman thinking possible bowl berth. While 6 wins may not be required to save Paul Wulff jobs, 5 wins may be. The Cougars will surprise many this season by being the final Pac-12 Bowl team thanks largly to a 3-0 out of conference schedule.
Arizona - After almost pulling off the upset of Oregon in 2009, the Wildcats opened up 2010 with a 7-1 record. In typical Mike Stoops fashion however, it was too good to be true as Arizona under-achieved and lost their next 5 games to finish the year. Returning QB Nick Foles will battle with USC QB Matt Barkley for the claim of 2nd best QB in the conference, but with Mike Stoops inexplicably still the Head Coach, expecting anything other than under-achieving will only lead to heartache for the Wildcats.
Arizona State - With USC ineligible for postseason play, the Sun Devils seem to be everyone's pick to win the Southern Division. Most of this is based on 6'8" QB Brock Osweiler. Problem is he's only played two games, and is very raw and unknown. If Osweiler stumbles the Sun Devils are in trouble. If Osweiler lives up to the Hype all eyes will be on their games against the Utes as the gateway to the Pac-12 championship game.
Colorado - The other Pac-12 newcomer comes in during a prolonged down time. They also join the conference with a first year coaching staff. 2011 looks to be another down year for the Buffs, but only time will tell if Embree can return them to prominence.
UCLA - UCLA has been it complete turmoil for the past few years. Head Coach Rick Neuheisel is firmly on the hot seat. Knowing this he revamped his coaching staff to try and go all in for this season. Neuheisel is a perfect example of the good ole boys club. Hopefully after he fails to even make it to the end of the 2011 season, schools will wise up and stop giving him their programs to lead.
USC - As tempting as it would be to blame USC's mediocre '10 on their sanctions, the truth is that since it was under appeal, the scholarship and roster reductions weren't in effect. 2010 was mediocre for USC just off of hard work. While the sanctions won't really hurt USC this season either, the fact that they have a terrible coach will. Talent alone will be enough to keep USC competitive in most games. Unfortunately for USC that talent is mostly on the offensive side, as the defense will struggle once again. At the end of the year the big question will be if consecutive 8 win seasons going to be enough in Troy? Combine the terrible coaching of Lane Kiffin, with the now in effect sanctions, and 8 wins may be the most USC sees for a few years.
Expanding the Red, Blue And Pigskin Bubble
Now that I've previewed the local teams, it's time to start talking about College Football as a whole. Next week brings the prediction issue. I'll run down the entire schedule for Utah, BYU and Utah State, and give you what should be expected to happen. Not content with just some local predictions I will make predictions for all of College Football as a whole in 2011.
Not having a good track record with my predictions you may want to bookmark that issue to have plenty of ammo to rub in my face when I end up completely wrong.
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I miss the McBride/Edwards days. The rivalry was never better, and both coaches had such class (not calling Kyle or Bronco classless, but there's no warmth to them) that the rivalry was more like friends playing in the backyard than mortal enemies battling to the death. As a result people get nasty during rivalry week and it's lost a lot of the playful teasing which has given way to mocking. Ah well, you can blame Urban for bringing disrespect into that...
Should be interesting to see how the rivalry evolves going forward. The teams are no longer connected in the same league, and I wonder if it will tone down the nastiness of the game a bit. I hope it goes back to being a fun game.
As for the immediate future, I think both BYU and Utah will be able to reload their positions faster than in the past. You might have one or two years with a deficiency in a position, but probably no longer than that. With the TV deals and the opportunity, these teams should be in great shape for recruits; which we've already seen with Utah stealing more California kids and BYU picking up some kids out of the South.
Here's a good video of Coach Mac and LaVell riffing off of one another.
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