Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In just its second season in the Pac-12, Utah has the look of a team set to contend for the Rose Bowl. The Utes went into their first season in the BCS without much expectation and finished a respectable 8-5, earning a bowl bid and the attention of the rest of the conference.
After a win over Montana State, Utah had some growing pains in 2011 as it adjusted to its new conference. The Utes lost their first four Pac-12 contests, but kept themselves afloat with wins at rival BYU (54-10) and Pittsburgh (26-14) during the conference losing streak. The squad then ripped off four straight conference wins beginning with a 27-8 victory over Oregon State before a 17-14 loss to Colorado in the regular-season finale.
The 7-5 regular season mark got Utah an invite to the Sun Bowl where the Utes outlasted Georgia Tech, 30-27 in overtime. When all was said and done the Utes had finished above .500 and had been competitive in their first season in the Pac-12.
OFFENSE: Both of Utah's best offensive weapons are back, which should help new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson in his attempt to revive a team that ranked 109th in total offense in 2011.
The 2011 season is made all that more impressive by the fact that Utah lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn for the last nine games of the season to a shoulder injury. Wynn is back and healthy after participating fully in spring practice. The red shirt junior threw for 2,334 yards and 17 touchdowns in his sophomore season.
"Jordan is throwing the ball as well as he has since coming here," head coach Kyle Whittingham said, "He's added `good' weight to his frame and is finally where he needs to be physically. Obviously, keeping him healthy will be very important to our success. He's a team leader and has complete command of the offense."
If Wynn doesn't return to form there is a ton of depth at the position with freshmen Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen, along with senior Jon Hays, who filled in for Wynn last year.
"Our quarterback situation is the best it has been in years," Whittingham said.
Junior college transfer John White IV will make Wynn's job even easier. The senior running back rushed for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. His durability is proven as he compiled those numbers on 316 carries with no other back recording more than 31 touches.
Whittingham has said that under Johnson, Utah will be taking more chances down field, something the Utes can afford to do with the talent at receiver. DeVonte Christopher led the team in receptions (42), yards (663) and touchdowns (5) last season and Dres Anderson was impressive in his freshman season.
Utah needs to fill the spots on the line left by all-conference tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen, but has two returns on the interior in center Tevita Stevens and right guard Sam Brenner.
DEFENSE: The defense has the depth and talent to be a top unit this season. Utah ranked 38th in total defense last season and 19th in scoring (20.2 ppg) and will need similar production to take the next step.
The defense is centered on 2011 All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who decided to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL Draft. Lotulelei had 44 total tackles and nine for a loss last season as the anchor of a defensive line the returns two other starters.
"He is the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 and maybe the best interior defensive lineman in the country," Whittingham said of Lotulelei, "Even though his stats were not overwhelming, the fact that his peers voted him the outstanding lineman in the league speaks volumes about his ability."
Former freshman All-American Brian Blechen is the leader in the secondary. His 78 total tackles last season was third on the team and he also collected three interceptions. Eric Rowe had 69 total tackles at free safety. Ryan Lacy (51 total tackles) and Mo Lee (three interceptions) are talented cornerbacks flanking Blechen and Rowe.
The linebackers will be led by Trevor Reilly. The junior had 47 total tackles and five sacks last season and will lead a unit replacing its top two tacklers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Reggie Dunn will handle kickoff returns and Griffin McNabb will be the returner on punts. Dunn was the primary kickoff return specialist, averaging 23.6 yards-per-return on 26 total kickoffs. McNabb brought back 22 punts with a 7.5 yard average.
Coleman Peterson was arguably the best place-kicker in the Pac-12 last season, connecting on 18-of-25 field goals. Sean Sellwood averaged 45.0 yards on punts.
OUTLOOK: Utah has the returning talent to really make a splash in its second season in the Pac-12. With Wynn and White on offense and Lotulelei on defense, the Utes won't just want to be competitive in their sophomore season.
The schedule does set up favorably for Utah, which has a relatively weak non- conference schedule and no date with Oregon. It begins with a contest against FCS opponent Northern Colorado, with games against rival Utah State and BYU following. Utah gets a Pac-12 warm up with a road contest against Arizona State before what could be its biggest game of the season at home against USC. From there Utah plays back-to-back games on the road (at UCLA and at Oregon State) then consecutive home games (California, Washington State). A trip to Washington and Colorado then bookend a final home game against Arizona.
Utah got the conference shift over with last season. Now the Utes will be shifting expectations with a team that has the roster to push itself into national recognition.