Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle and top prospect in next year's NFL draft, is not the only bright star in the Utah Ute sky. He may be the brightest, sure, but he's not alone.
Entering a new college football season, the Utes are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. The move to the Pac-12, made official in June 2010, has served them well on the recruiting trail. Rivals.com ranked Utah's incoming class as the 28th best in the nation. Not bad for a team that is fresh off an 8-5 season and returns 16 total starters (nine on offense, six on defense).
While Lotulelei is deservedly the headline-grabber—and name which generally resides atop most early mock drafts—several other Utes are primed for big seasons. These five to be exact, with a few others very capable.
WR DeVonte Christopher
I can't get over how underrated (and overlooked) Christopher is on the national scene.
When the top wide receivers are discussed, he is never even uttered. When the Senior Bowl released its first ever preseason "Watch List" on Thursday, he was nowhere to be seen in the crowd of 309 names from 114 schools. When I mention his name, most people—"pundits" included—respond, "Who?"
Christopher, initially recruited out of high school as a quarterback, has led the Utes in receiving the past two seasons—81 total receptions for 1,323 yards and 11 touchdowns during that time. Against USC in September, he was the best receiver on the field, consistently moving the chains and catching 11 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown on the afternoon.
He's not the quickest or the tallest guy, but he is a savvy route-runner with a knack for making clutch plays. Just ask Georgia Tech.
DE Nate Fakahafua
You may not know the name yet—major emphasis on the yet—but you soon will.
A prototypical defensive end, and former first-team all-state receiver at Highland High, Fakahafua (pronounced fa-ka-hah-foo-a) is big, strong and athletically gifted. He has put on 50 solid pounds of muscle since joining the Utes and still runs a 4.7 40-yard dash.
As defenses focus on Lotulelei, the Kruger brothers and other proven commodities, Fakahafua will capitalize on one-on-one matchups. He has a quick first step and uses his hands and lower body well to scoot by would-be blockers.
This kid, only a true sophomore, has a real chance to develop into a special player. And quickly.
OL Sam Brenner
A two-year starter at right guard, with rumors of a possible move to tackle (h/t Lya Wodraska, The Salt Lake Tribune), Brenner is back to anchor a fairly inexperienced line—the Utes lost both Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen to graduation and the NFL—that will be tested often in their new conference.
Asked about the top priority heading into camp, head coach Kyle Whittingham didn't hesitate (h/t Dirk Facer, Desert News): "Offensive tackle, offensive tackle, and offensive tackle. In that order. That's the most pressing issue that we have. We recruited to that end."
They added several bodies, both from the high school and junior college ranks, to step in and compete for time alongside returning starters Miles Mason, Tevita Stevens and Brenner. While the shuffling continues, Brenner remains the leader.
CB Mo Lee
Another in a long, very long line of Utah recruits that find success in a new position—a list that includes past alumni Paul Kruger, Sean Smith, Eric Weddle and current teammates Brian Blechen, Christopher and Fakahafua—Lee began his collegiate career at receiver, switched to corner and has since excelled.
He is fluid in his movements, is physical at the line and really tracks the ball well, even better than most receivers—weird. In limited time as a junior, Lee tallied 31 total tackles, six passes defended and three interceptions.
Now entrenched as a starter, a noticeable leap in production is expected.
RB John White IV
No preseason article about this team is complete without mention of White, not after last season. The transfer from L.A. Harbor College had 316 carries (third most in the nation) for 1,519 yards (11th most in the nation and a single-season school record) and 15 touchdowns. He also helped out in pass protection and slipped out of the backfield for 13 receptions and two touchdowns.
White, known as the "Wolfman," enters his senior campaign as a Heisman, All-America and Doak Walker candidate.
Listed at 5'8" and a generous 185 pounds (maybe soaked in heavy whipping cream), he is not your typical workhorse but runs like one. He has great vision, patience and is equally effective inside and outside the tackles.
The accolades—and there are surely more on the way—are well-earned.
WR Kenneth Scott
Scott has impressed enough in spring and fall to be named co-starter on the most recent depth chart. The redshirt sophomore provides a big, physical target for quarterback Jordan Wynn. Look for him to emerge as a deep-ball and red-zone threat.
CB Ryan Lacy
The self-proclaimed "fastest man on the team"—film, which never lies, backs it up—is a shutdown corner in the making. Usually lined up against the opponent's top receiver, Lacy will have his hands full again this season.
FS Eric Rowe
With Lacy and Lee at corner, and Brian Blechen and Rowe at the safety positions, the Utes boast arguably the most talented secondary in the Pac-12. Rowe is the ideal center fielder for this defense and has shown the ability to step, nay sprint, into the box and stuff the run as well.
There will be no sophomore slump for this freshman All-American.