Let me be very clear, as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham trumpeted in his post game Presser following Saturday’s regular season-ending finale win over Colorado “Co-Champs of the PAC-12 South is a great accomplishment! 9 wins is an alltime high since we joined the PAC-12. …it’s a process, we feel we take another step forward this year, that’s a good thing. We want to keep on an upward trajectory.” Clearly, this is a very good football team, done in mostly by the increasingly balanced and cannibalistic PAC-12!
It’s important that, in this Snap-chat, snap-judgement age, hero today, goat tomorrow, that Utah football fans take a moment, maybe do a quick search for the Emoji that symbolizes satisfaction and pride in a positive process that presses onward and upward. Proof is that the Utes just moved from 8 regular season wins and 5 PAC-12 wins last year up to 9 regular season wins and 6 PAC-12 wins this season. Onward and upward! A job well done. Months of sacrifice, spilling blood, pouring sweat and crying tears creating a crescendo of cheers. They reached a vortex of 7-0 and a ranking of third in the Nation. Plenty to pound your chest about.
It’s when we all want to turn to what’s next, to project this pattern forward that things will quickly get murky.
Gone but certainly not forgotten? Veteran serviceable QB Travis Wilson. The Utes alltime “suit-up and show-up” guy, his 38 (the Bowl game will make it 39!) career starts at QB is a new school record, there are other records. The latest in a remarkable run of fantastic (if maybe overworked) ‘bellcow’ running backs Devontae Booker. Next stop full recovery, crazy mad prep for the NFL Combine and a 3rd or 4th round NFL draft pick. Classy and passionate possession receiver Kenneth Scott, also heading to injury rehab and a mid-to-late round NFL draft pick.
Quality, dependable slot receiver Bubba Poole will also get an NFL look. He could easily be considered “Red Team Player of the Year”. Bubba was Utah’s run game two seasons ago but when Devontae Booker arrived and commanded the man’s share, “feature back” status, Poole gracefully accepted reassignment from running back to slot receiver and was a bit underutilized in my opinion (24 catches just 160 yards-6 yds/catch-no TDs).
The O-Line is tough, tenacious and mostly returning. Replacing Sr Sioni Aiona at Center will be a challenge but Jim Harding’s already on it.
Special Teams has left two immense (gynormous too) roster spots. Unquestionably the best 1-2 Punter/Place Kicker combo in the history of Utah Football, defending Ray Guy Award (Nation’s Best Punter) winner Tom Hackett (a finalist for a second straight RG Award) and the cherubic, former US Olympic Alpine Skier Andy Phillips among Utah’s greatest field goal guys. This all-important 3rd phase of team play needs to be completely overhauled. It was this dominant kicking game, the kind that graces a program once every decade or more that helped make Utah so balanced and tough to beat.
On the STOP side of the ball Utah will always be sort of set as long as Coach Whit’s in charge, along with the ageless John Pease. Biggest need will be replacing arguably among the finest set of LB’s the men in red have ever had. Jared Norris, Gianni Paul (maybe the Utes’ best defensive player all season) and Jason Whittingham. Sharef Shah’s DB’s are all returning (save for Tevin Carter) along the DLine, lots of returning players including Star’s (Big) little bro Lowell Lotulelei. Only starter NOT returning? DE Jason Fanaika. SO big hunt for LB’s, Punters, Kickers AND QB, RB, WR, Slot guy.
Brittian Covey leaves for his 2 year LDS Church Mission, so they’ll need incoming playmakers too.
Jr. TF Joe Williams will get his shot to be Utah’s feature back, he ran very well in two (60 carries, 336 yards, 5.6 yds per carry TD plus 4 rec/31 ,) games when Devontae Booker went down. Joe might not be the only Willams in the Utes backfield come Spring. JCTF QB Troy Williams (6’2″/210lbs, Santa Monica Community College) looks to have a slight edge based on his raw talent and demeanor.
Can’t wait to see how recruiting and the occasional transfer talent might affect the direction of the program. So much work to do heading into 2016! It sets up as a difficult season with so many key positions an unknown right now.