Utah Utes Football: Jon Hays and 6 Other Players Who Must Step Up
Before the 2011 season, a number of sports analysts pegged Utah to finish in the middle of the Pac-12 south.
Fans thought the Runnin’ Utes had a legitimate shot at the southern division title, especially after a near miss at USC. Now, at 0-3 in conference play, Utah’s just looking for a Pac-12 win.
The remainder of the schedule is favorable for Utah. However, to win most, if not all of its games, key individuals will need to step up
Here are those individuals:.
An obvious—but essential choice—Jon Hays is a mix of toughness, potential and inexperience.
In his first FBS start against Arizona State, Jon put up respectable numbers: 18 of 30 passing and a touchdown. However, he also made some poor decisions. Three interceptions put his defense in a deep hole.
Jon has to make smarter choices. With just 25 seconds left in the first half, he had the Utes on ASU’s 16-yard line. He rolled out and tried to force a pass to the end zone, resulting in an interception. The smart play was to dump the ball off to John White in the flat.
If nothing else, throw it away and save a field goal attempt.
Against ASU, Jon showed surprising agility in getting out of trouble when the pocket collapsed and often found a receiver or gained ground with his feet.
Prior to coming to Utah, Rivals.com ranked John Cullen the No. 1 JC offensive lineman of 2009. In 2010, he started all 12 regular season games at left tackle and had a season-high grade 83 percent against Wyoming.
He’s a proven leader on the team. Now in his senior year, he’s carrying a season average grade of 76 percent, the lowest among the starters. John has shown that he can do better.
Mental mistakes on the left side have been critical.
Against Washington, Cullen turned a fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-6 with a false start; a senior leader has got to be better than that. Whether it be missed assignments or the direction of offensive line coach Tim Davis, they need to seal off the blindside.
If there's one go-to-guy, one impact player for the Utes, it’s DeVonte Christopher.
Coming off the 2010 season, Christopher led Utah in receiving yards, yards per game and touchdown receptions (660, 55 and 6). Utah has a talented pool of receivers, like freshman Dres Anderson, but this stage belongs to Christopher.
Against USC, Christopher had 11 receptions for 136 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, he made Jordan Wynn look good. All Jordan had to do was put the ball near him and Christopher came up with it, including a critical reception on fourth-and-10 that helped set Utah up for the potential game-tying field goal.
DeVonte Christopher is synonymous with big plays. If the Utes hope to salvage this season, they’ll need him.
Junior receiver Reggie Dunn spent 2010 as a solid backup receiver.
Now is the time for him to come into his own. If DeVonte Christopher misses any game time, he’ll need to contribute even more. With Christopher out, Dunn racked up 55 receiving yards against ASU and 93 yards on four kick returns. He also had one fumble that led to a Sun Devil’s touchdown.
Kick returns are where he can make a huge difference. He and defensive back Ryan Lacy share the title of fastest player on the team with a 40-yard dash time of 4.32. Giving Jon Hays a short field will take off a lot of pressure.
His head’s in the right place. After the ASU loss, he had this to say:
"We are still confident in one another...we know we can play with these guys. You've seen that over the last couple of weeks against USC, Washington and Arizona State."
Reggie Dunn can pull some double duty at running back, but the Utes need another all-purpose running back to spell John White, who’s currently fifth in rushing in the PAC-12.
Tauni (pronounced: downy) Vakapuna is a senior with the most experience of the remaining running back core. He’s a 5’ 9”, 229 lbs north-south power runner who can share the back field responsibilities, especially between the tackles.
Vakapuna had a vaunted career at Dixie College, where he led the team in rushing. He transferred to Utah in 2010, where he averaged 4.2 yards per carry.
In 2011, family issues kept him from playing spring ball, but he earned his way back on the team in fall camp. He’s seen limited action so far; now his team needs him more than ever.
Conroy Black, a senior defensive back who stands 6’, 180 lbs, has been solid, but he could be outstanding.
Last season, he had 19 tackles, one sack and an interception. He’s got 4.35 speed, which means he can keep pace with any receiver in the conference. You know he’ll be there to make a stop, but to reach the next level, he needs to turn and look at the quarterback.
Black has a tendency to play off the receiver. His MO is to allow passes underneath so he won't give up the big play and make a solid tackle; occasionally, I’d like to see him jump the receiver’s route.
He’s step-for-step on the go routes, but he almost never turns to look for the ball. This allowed a big pass completion against ASU, and in a game where the offense gave up five turnovers, a couple of takeaways by the defense would be game changing.
At middle linebacker standing at 6’0", 223 lbs, Chaz Walker is as good as anybody in the conference. In 2010, he led Utah in tackles with 113.
He doesn’t need anyone to tell him to step up—in an ASU postgame interview with ESPN 700 this week, he said it himself.
“As a whole defense we got to step up our game a lot more. It's not just on the back end guys for the pass. We got to get more pressure on the quarterback and get better drops on, and better reroutes with the linebackers, and make plays on the back end.”
Time and again ASU’s quarterback Brock Osweiler found open receivers either short or mid-range across the middle. Against ASU, Utah’s defense only gave up 74 yards on the ground, but 325 through the air.