Will the glass slipper fit the Utah Utes again in 2009, or does Utah revert back to mediocrity following a dream season that began with a win at The Big House and ended with a convincing victory over the Tide in the Sugar Bowl?
The 2009 Utah team is already off to a terrific start, receiving its highest ever preseason ranking, coming in at #18 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
Utah was unranked to start the season last year and was preseason #20 in 2004, the first time they crashed the BCS.
Given the amount of talent Utah loses from 2008, a #18 ranking speaks volumes for the Utah brand of football and the perception of its ability to reload after the 2008 Cinderella season.
Reload or Rebuild?
The Ute’s performance in 2009 will provide a key indication of where the program stands today.
Is this a leap year program that excels every fourth year? Has Utah emerged as a mainstay in the top 25? Has this become an elite program figuring into the BCS mix year in, year out?
Utah has all the right tools (depth, talent, chemistry and leadership) to compete at the highest level this year, but may only go as far as the quarterback position can take them.
History is not on Utah's side. Excellent quarterback play is a common denominator shared by all previous BCS busters. Of the four currently ranked non-AQ teams (TCU, Boise St. and BYU), Utah is the only one without a returning starter.
At the same time, Utah has proven their defense can win and keep most games within reach. Surprisingly, the 2009 defense looks stronger and deeper than ever, despite losing standouts DE Paul Kruger, CB Sean Smith and CB Brice McCain to the NFL.
Here is a quick glimpse of Utah’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and unique challenges for 2009.
What many thought to be Utah’s greatest weakness going into the 2008 season is now their strongest asset for 2009. Senior DE Koa Misi (Pre-season All-MWC Defense) and sophomore Derrick Shelby, moving back to his natural DE position after stellar play as the country’s lightest DT, head up one of the top DE duos in the country.
Senior DT Kenape Eliapo (6’0", 300 lbs.) and sophomore DT Lei Talamaivoa (6’2", 280 lbs.) will plug up the middle with size and quickness while a handful of emerging prospects including true freshman Latu Heimuli and redshirt freshman Dave Krueger, wait in the wings.
The Utah linebacking corps returns its entire unit from a terrific 2008 and seemingly can only get better. Utah’s corps is well-balanced with speed, intelligence and experience, anchored by senior All-MWC Pre-season Defender Stevenson Sylvester, and underrated senior Mike Wright, who led the team in tackles last season.
While last year’s three top receivers are out, Utah is still stacked and loaded at this skill position. Senior David Reed is poised for an explosive year after coming on strong late last season. Speedy junior Jereme Brooks brings game experience and exceptional route running. Luke Matthews is a redshirt freshman on the verge of stardom. Junior Shaky Smithson is an under-the-radar JUCO transfer with breakaway talent that may sneak onto the first team following camp.
Senior Joe Dale (strong) and senior Robert Johnson (free) are returning starters with phenomenal closing speed and field awareness. Behind Dale and Johnson is an impressive group of promising but heavily inexperienced JUCO transfers and freshmen.
Utah’s 2008 leading rusher, senior Matt Asiata, will anchor the offense with a powerful running game and the patented Asiata wildcat formation. Junior Eddie Wide brings speed and slash as a change of tempo back while fans should expect an occasional glimpse of touted redshirt freshman Sausan Shakerin.
The Utes figure to have another solid year in the trenches returning three starters up front, including Outland Trophy candidate and senior Zane Beadles, sophomore Caleb Schlauderaff and junior Zane Taylor. Sophomore Tony Bergstrom is the fourth starter on the O-line with solid starting experience. Competition is still under way for a starting right guard, which seems to be junior Walter Watt’s job to lose.
The race to replace Brian Johnson behind center is a three-man competition headed into camp.
Junior Corbin Louks has been the backup for two seasons and brings tremendous leadership with big play capability. Junior Terrence Cain is the reigning NJCAA offensive MVP. Cain is a dual-threat with a terrific arm and spread option experience. Jordan Wynn is a true freshman with a high football IQ and cannon arm.
The smart money seemed to be on Louks due to his D-1 experience and familiarity with the system. Louks has exceptional speed and a knack for the big play. However, he has also been prone to forcing plays and turning the ball over.
Two traits that Utah may be especially adverse to, given their defensive prowess and strength at the other skill positions.
Coach Whittingham will likely opt for the best game manager and go with the quarterback who makes the fewest mistakes.
Last week Coach Whittingham announced that freshman Jordan Wynn has taken over as the current number one on the depth chart. While none of the quarterbacks have particularly separated themselves during camp, Wynn possesses the strongest arm, offers the most upside potential and has proven a quick study with the new offense.
As the better passer, Wynn may be the best option to open up the spread offense, provide much needed space for RB Matt Asiata and be more effective distributing the ball to a stable of top WR talent.
However, by starting a true freshman, the Ute coaching staff may have to work overtime to help Wynn keep mistakes and devastating turnovers to a minimum.
One of the biggest challenges the Ute Defense will face is finding replacements for both corners. The corner position is a vital component for Whittingham’s scheme. Much of Utah’s success last year, including the Sugar Bowl, can be attributed to Utah’s ability to man up on coverage and get more defenders in the box to slow the run.
On the first team, senior RJ Stanford can flat out fly in the backfield with sub-4.3 speed. Stanford brings sound game experience as a starter from last year's Nickel package. Sophomore Brandon Burton brings low 4.3 speed and figures to start alongside Stanford while a mix of acclaimed freshmen and JUCO transfers, including Conroy Black, aim at breaking the two deep and maybe even challenging Burton.
Utah’s three toughest opponents (Oregon, TCU and BYU) will all be on the road in three of the most intimidating venues to play. Outside of these three games, Utah’s out-of-conference (Utah State, San Jose State and Louisville) and remaining MWC schedule may be too weak to garner any BCS consideration should they fall.
All-American K/P Louis Sakoda is back. Unfortunately, this time it is on the sidelines as an undergraduate assistant. Sakoda’s consistency and composure in the clutch will be irreplaceable. While Utah has capable kickers vying to replace King Louie, expect the Ute’s kicking game to alter from a game changing asset to a potential liability.
As evidenced by a relatively strong preseason rank, the Utes have built a strong brand that may bode very well on the human ballots. Should Utah run the table, a third BCS Bowl berth seems imminent. National title aspirations are palpable, but come with a mountain of contingencies, most significantly the play of Oregon and the rest of the MWC versus BCS-caliber opponents.
- The three biggest games—Oregon, BYU and TCU—are all on the road.
- Utah will be breaking in new defensive and offensive coordinators.
- Potential Traps: San Diego St., New Mexico and Wyoming all feature new offensive-minded coaches with excellent quarterbacks.
- Utah boasts the nation’s longest winning streak at 14 games.
- Utah comes into the season with the nation’s longest bowl winning streak at eight.
With three challenging road games, a new quarterback, and key personnel losses, Utah’s depth and resiliency will be taken to the test. Expect the Ute defense to be dominant and aggressive in taking the team as far as the offense will allow it. Utah should remain in the Top 25 mix throughout the season and battle with BYU and TCU for the MWC crown.