February 15, 2010

Spring Preview: Offense

The Utes do not lose much on the offensive side of the ball, returning most of the starting offense from 2009. The Utes were a solid offensive unit a year ago, scoring nearly 30 points per game. Still, there were opportunities lost throughout the season that kept a good year from being great. Spring will be when the Utes begin to find answers for some of those issues while continuing to improve their weaknesses.

When the Utes open spring camp in March, they will have few questions to answer on the offensive side of the ball. The biggest hole is at left tackle, and there is some production to replace at receiver as well. Utah does return a great deal of talent at receiver, as well as production at running back and quarterback. With a year under their belts, Utah's quarterbacks should be much improved, which will benefit the entire offense. Positions to watch are tight end, receiver, and left tackle.

Utah's offense could have been better in 2009, especially on third downs and in the redzone. The Utes converted on just 38% of their third downs, stalling too many drives and settling for too many field goals or short punts. Utah scored touchdowns on just 53% of the time inside their opponents' 20-yard line, a number that will need to go up with a more difficult schedule in 2010. Key to the Utah offense will be needed improvement in the quarterback play, where we start the offensive preview.

Players LostReturning StartersTop ReturnersThe Rest
Terrance CainGriff Robles
Jordan WynnBrian Blechen
Tyler Shreve

Utah returns both starters from a year ago. Utah's passing offense was solid in 2009 despite switching quarterbacks mid-stream. The Utes passed for 2,980 yards and 19 touchdowns. There is still room for improvement as the Utes could use more passing touchdowns, a better completion percentage, and an improvement in third down conversions. New quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson will be the Utes first dedicated quarterbacks coach since Dan Mullen in 2004. Ever since then, whoever has coached the quarterbacks has also had offensive coordinator responsibilities. It will be worth watching to see how the former Utah star adjusts to coaching his position.

Terrance Cain started the season and played well enough to guide the Utes to a 6-1 start to the season before being replaced at halftime against Wyoming. The offense had been struggling before the change was made. Cain is a solid all-around player who just never seemed to make a big play in the passing game. Jordan Wynn came on strong as a true freshman after replacing Cain, and heads into 2010 as the starter after throwing for 1,329 yards in five and a half games. Wynn will be pushed in the spring by Cain and Griff Robles. Robles received rave reviews for his play on the scout team and is a big, athletic quarterback. Brian Blechen and Tyler Shreve will be joining the Utes in the fall, though there is a very good chance the Utes could have just three quarterbacks for fall camp. Shreve could forego college football for pro baseball, while Robles and Blechen are athletic enough to move to another position.

Outlook: Though Wynn enters 2010 as the starter, don't sleep on the other two this spring. Cain and Robles have been working hard in preparations to push Wynn and compete for the starting job. All three quarterbacks will be playing like the spot is open which will make for a very entertaining competition. Wynn is the best passer, Cain the best runner, and Robles a nice combination of both.

Running Back
Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest
Ray StowersEddie WideSausan ShakerinBeau Burton
Matt Asiata* Mychal Robinson
Jake Cook
Shawn Asiata
Tauni Vakapuna
Princeton Collins
Lucky Radley

* - waiting for NCAA ruling on medical hardship request.

When Matt Asiata tore his ACL scoring a touchdown against Louisville, Utah's running game appeared to suffer a severe blow with no proven back to carry the load. In came Eddie Wide and all he did was set a school record with seven consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Utah returns every key contributor from 2009's squad that ran for nearly 2,100 yards and 23 touchdowns. Utah's staff would like to see the running game improve overall, and the poor performance in big games (Oregon, TCU, BYU, Cal) will be a focus of the backs and line in the spring. "We need to run the ball better in our big games," offensive line coach Blake Miller said. "That involves the line playing better, the backs, everybody has to do a better job." Running backs coach Aaron Alford agrees. "I agree with that," Alford said. "The bigger games, we need to be able to bust out for 200 yards against a TCU, against BYU. Pitt to begin with this year, and then the rest of our conference."

Wide returns as Utah's top running back. The senior-to-be ran for 1,069 yards and a conference best 12 touchdowns. Should Asiata be granted his sixth year, he will provide a between-the-tackles change to Wide's more darting, slashing style. Sausan Shakerin only got better as the season went on as he learned what it takes to be a successful runner at this level. Beau Burton was fantastic on the scout team, but a foot injury during bowl practices will keep him out of spring ball. With Asiata and Burton out for the spring, Utah will be counting on several new faces to help take carries. Former East High standout Jake Cook will rejoin the team after serving an LDS mission, while transfers Shawn Asiata and Tauni Vakapuna will be available for spring ball. Shawn is the younger brother of Matt Asiata, and is a 250-pound fullback. Tauni Vakapuna is the younger brother of former BYU back Fui Vakapuna. Vakapuna will not be eligible to play in 2010 due to NCAA transfer rules but can practice. Vakapuna led Dixie State in rushing a year ago in Rebels pass-happy offense. Mychal Robinson played on special teams for the Utes in 2009 and will see his carries increase in the spring. Incoming freshmen Princeton Collins and Lucky Radley will join the team in the fall.

Outlook: Should Asiata return, the Utes look to be in great shape with two proven backs and a third back with game experience. Burton impressed enough to potentially see playing time in 2010, but missing spring ball is a serious setback. Shakerin, Robinson, Cook, and Vakapuna should see plenty of carries in the spring with Asiata and Burton out and Wide a known commodity. Regardless of how the position works out in the spring, the Utes will have a solid group of backs.

Wide Receivers
Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest
David ReedJereme BrooksDeVonte ChristopherSean Fitzgerald
Aiona KeyLuke MatthewsJamal Smith
John PeelShaky SmithsonJosh Anderson
Kevin Chandler
Griffin McNabb
Fatu Moala
Chase Nakamura
Jake Orchard
Zach Wade
Dres Anderson
Kenneth Scott
Terrell Reese

David Reed turned in one of the most productive seasons for a Utah receiver in 2009, setting school records for receptions and receiving yards. With Reed gone, Utah's challenge in the spring will be to find a player or players to replace his production. Though one player may not catch 80 passes in 2010, Utah could very well find three who will catch 50. Utah does return four players who caught passes in 2009 in Jereme Brooks, Luke Matthews, Shaky Smithson, and DeVonte Christopher. "Jereme and Luke are the two guys that are proven players, and we're hoping that Shaky and DeVonte can keep improving and increase their role," receivers coach Aaron Roderick said. "Sean Fitzgerald had a really good bowl prep so he's a guy that has a chance to be a good player. Consistency from the group as a whole is what we need to improve. Be the same guy every day, we need this next wave of guys to step up and show consistency, that urgency, and we can't wait for them to develop that by mid-season."

Brooks took off once Wynn became the quarterback, catching 26 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns over the final five games. Matthews battled a severe ankle injury all season long which kept him from being a major contributor in the passing game. "I love Luke. I want more guys like Luke," Roderick said. "I know surgery was a possibility, it just never got a chance to heal because the guy would not stop." Christopher has the athleticism to contribute to the position, but he needs to be more consistent. Now two years removed from playing quarterback, Christopher should be ready to take the next step as a receiver. Christopher has the skill set and huge hands (reportedly has the biggest hands on the team) to be a weapon. Smithson will miss spring ball while recovering from shoulder surgery, which will be a setback for the versatile athlete. Fitzgerald is in the mold of Bradon Godfrey, a tough, fearless receiver who will go over the middle and take contact. Jamal Smith redshirted in 2009 and needs to continue to improve in the spring. The Utes have plenty of walk-on receivers that will get a chance in spring to show their skills. Zach Wade had a nice fall camp and Griffin McNabb will also have a role as a return man. Utah brings in three freshmen receivers in the fall. Dres Anderson, Kenneth Scott, and Terrell Reese make up what Roderick calls "the best group of incoming receivers we've had since I've been here. They're all complete players, the most division one-ready group we've had."

Outlook: There is no David Reed on the team, but the staff is confident that the production can be matched by the group as a whole. Smithson being out will hurt his development, but will also give players like Christopher, Fitzgerald, and Smith more opportunities to improve. Brooks and Matthews will take two of the starting positions while everyone else will be battling in the spring for at least one more spot. Keep an eye on Christopher, who appears primed for a big spring that will set him up for a starting job in the fall.

Offensive Line
Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest
Zane BeadlesTony BergstromSam BrennerVyncent Jones
Viliamu NauCaleb SchlauderaffDaniel BukarauKapua Sai
Tyler WilliamsTevita StevensDerek TuimaugaPercy Taumoelau
Zane TaylorWalter WattsJeremiah Tofaeono
Ron Tongaonevai
Nick Binks
Kala Friel
Matt Snow
Michael Steckling
Kawika Vincent
Zach Bolton
John Cullen

Utah returns four starters from 2009, and six players who have started at least one game, meaning a wealth of experience returns to a unit that played well as the season went on. Utah must replace All-American Zane Beadles at left tackle, though the Utes have plenty of candidates that will compete for the job. Utah's line had some issues at times in 2009, and as mentioned with the running backs, coach Miller wants to see the line step up and play much more physical in big games. "More physical" and "toughness" were the words Miller used most when discussing 2010 and what he want to see in spring practices. Miller would also like to see the a leader emerge to replace Beadles and for the entire line to improve their pad level and use their hands better.

Miller will shake things up for spring, moving Caleb Schlauderaff over to left tackle. Though Miller admits that move will draw attention, he says not to read much into it. "We practiced Zane Taylor at right guard for fall camp, but he didn't play a snap there in the season," Miller said. So why the move? Miller wants to develop as much depth as he can, and having the ability to move players around to make sure the best five our out on the field is a luxury he wants to develop as quickly as possible. Joining Schlauderaff will be Walter Watts at left guard, Taylor at center, Tevita Stevens and right guard, and Tony Bergstrom at right tackle. Miller would like Watts and Bergstrom to work on their toughness and Stevens to cut down on his mental errors. Taylor needs to be able to knock a head-up nose guard off the line while Schlauderaff could be a bit more physical. The second unit will consist of Percy Taumoelau at left tackle, Jeremiah Tofaeono at left guard, Vyncent Jones at center, Ron Tongaonevai at right guard and Kapua Sai at right tackle. Taumoelau had some nice practices and could develop into a starting tackle down the road. Tofaeono is a pure road grader who needs to refine his technique. Jones spent last season at guard and will now be learning the center spot for depth and versatility. Tongaonevai is massive but needs to drop some weight and refine technique. Sai is very fluid and has great feet for his size and will now work at tackle after spending last season at center. Sam Brenner will not be available for the start of spring ball with a foot injury and could miss all spring practices. Derek Tuimauga has not decided if he will go on an LDS mission, making his status for spring and the 2010 season unknown. John Cullen will arrive in the fall and should take over at left tackle immediately. Zack Bolton will either arrive in the fall or greyshirt and enroll in 2011, the decision is not final yet. Nick Binks will either play tackle or tight end.

Outlook:All the experience returning is great for the Utah offense, but there is plenty to improve upon, especially in the running game. Utah's pass protection was good for the most part in 2009 and should be better in 2010. The questions that need to be answered in the spring are leadership and toughness in the running game. Beadles was led by example, and it is up to Taylor and Schlauderaff to step up and lead the unit. Cullen should provide a quality left tackle but Utah will play their best five offensive linemen, which is why there will be so much cross-training in the spring.

Tight End
Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest2010 Mission
Chris JoppruBrad CliffordWestlee TongaSefa Tanoai
Ben HendyKendrick MoeaiDallin Rogers
Nick Binks

[db]Dave Schramm[/db] will now coach Utah's tight ends, a position that should see much more use in the passing game in 2010. Utah has not used the position as a passing threat much since 2003, as the strength of the athletes at the position has been blocking. That began to change a year ago as tight ends caught a combined nine passes and had a strong showing in the bowl game.

Kendrick Moeai enters the spring as the starter at tight end, and will see time flexed out as a slot receiver. Roderick and Schramm emphasize that the offense will not change, just that you will see a tight end running some routes. "The passes Kenrick caught in the bowl game were routes that you would see Bradon or Freddie Brown run," Roderick said. Moeai has the size and speed to be a matchup problem for teams should he earn the right to be used more in the spring. Moeai does need to improve his blocking, especially against smaller, quicker defensive backs. Brad Clifford is another former high school receiver who is more of a receiver than a blocker. Westlee Tonga has returned from his LDS mission and will compete for playing time at tight end. Binks could play either tight end or tackle. Dallin Rogers returns from his mission in May and will join the team in the fall. Signee Sefa Tanoai will leave on his mission before enrolling.

Outlook:Though Moeai's bowl numbers were not overly impressive outside of the two touchdowns, it was the most productive game a Utah tight end has had since Ben Moa in 2003. Moeai has the skills to be a solid threat in the passing game and a good enough blocker to not be a liability on the field. Clifford is a solid backup while Tonga has potential. It will be interesting to see how the offensive staff utilizes the position in spring and throughout the 2010 season.

Special Teams
Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest
Ben VromanJoe PhillipsNick MarshDavid Goddard
Sean SellwoodDeVonte Christopher
Patrick GreeneLuke Matthews
Shaky SmithsonMychal Robinson

Special teams play for the Utes in 2009 had its good and bad moments. Joe Phillips turned into a solid placekicker and Sean Sellwood earned mention on a few freshman All-American teams. Utah's punt coverage had several key breakdowns that changed some big games, most notably Oregon and BYU. Utah enters spring looking to replace Ben Vroman on kickoffs while shoring up punt coverage.

Phillips came out of nowhere to earn the placekicking duties, making 20 of 22 field goals. He needs to work on adding some more range and convince the coaches he can attempt kicks from more than 45 yards away. Sellwood was solid, but needs to improve distance and hang time. The coverage breakdowns were a combination of hang time, tackling, and discipline in holding lanes. Smithson returns as the primary return specialist for both kickoffs and punts, but will be pushed by Christopher and Matthews. Jereme Brooks will continue to see work as a kick returner, while Robinson and McNabb will work as punt returners. Patrick Greene was solid as the long snapper but needs to add some size and strength to his frame, as well as continue to work on his snaps. Nick Marsh has rejoined the team and will be first in line to replace Vroman on kickoffs.

Outlook:Utah is in a nice spot when it comes to kicking, returning the entire "battery" of Greene, Sellwood, and Phillips. If Marsh can come in and provide the distance on kickoffs that Vroman excelled at in 2009, Utah's kicking game should be in good shape. Utah's return games were solid, nearly breaking some kick and punt returns for scores, and returning all key contributors there will maintain that threat. Kick coverage was solid, and should be again. The key area of focus will be punt coverage. Should the Utes improve their punt coverage, and should Sellwood improve his hang time on punts, the Utes could have an excellent special teams unit.

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