The Rant Sports 100 in 100 series continues with the Utah Utes who, five years removed from an undefeated season and BCS bowl win, are staring down a make-or-break year for head coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes’ win-loss record has declined each season since the team joined the Pac-12 in 2011. Whittingham, in his ninth season, has counseled patience during the transition, but in Year Three, fans want a big bowl trophy to add to the program’s snazzy new state-of-the-art football building — not another 5-7 finish.
It’s cliché to name the quarterback the most important player, but for the 2013 Utes, there’s a lot riding on the improvement of presumed starter Travis Wilson. Last season, as a true freshman, Wilson took over sooner than expected after Jordan Wynn‘s medical retirement. He threw for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns, and he ran for four more, but he also threw six interceptions and was part of the reason Utah finished dead last in the Pac-12 in passing.
Whittingham hired Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator in the offseason, but the success of his revamped, uptempo offense rests on Wilson’s ability to execute.
Wilson’s confident, rock solid performance in the Utes’ Spring Game (13 of 17 for 210 yards and two TDs) gave him the edge to reclaim the starting role, but he’ll shoulder more responsibility now that he doesn’t have two-time 1,000-yard rusher John White on the field with him.
The offense was pretty awful in 2012 under the guidance of former Utah QB Brian Johnson, the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation. The addition of Erickson should help immensely, and Wilson should be better with a year of experience.
Wilson has two equally talented receivers — juniors Dres Anderson (36 catches for 365 yards and 3 TDs) and Kenneth Scott (32 catches for 360 yards and 3 TDs) — who could have breakout seasons in 2013 if they’re not overshadowed by Utah’s tight ends.
Junior Jake Murphy was second on the team in receptions last season with 33 and he was an honorable mention All Pac-12 selection. Big and athletic, he could become Wilson’s safety net this year, especially in the red zone.
The outlook at running back is cloudier. The second-leading rusher, senior Kelvin York, had just 273 yards and is far from a sure thing after missing chunks of time throughout his career with injuries, most recently a toe injury this spring. Senior Karl Williams played well in the spring game, but Whittingham also mentioned a “running back by committee situation.” The coach is excited about several incoming recruits, but it might be a year or two before the run game gets back up to speed.
The defensive line loses three of its four starters, but it’s still in good shape. Whittingham is excited about senior Tenny Palepoi and JUCO transfer Sese Ianu at tackle, while junior Nate Orchard and senior Trevor Reilly, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, are back at end. Reilly also played at linebacker last season because of a rash of injuries at the position. There are a handful of players with some experience there, but the player to watch will be Brian Blechen, a three-time honorable mention All-Conference player and former Freshman All-America safety who was converted to linebacker in the offseason.
Junior Eric Rowe has been the starter at free safety since his true freshman season, but there are several players competing to fill Blechen’s spot at strong safety, and corner and nickel are just as uncertain. Senior Keith McGill is the hopeful starter for one of the cornerback spots, but he hasn’t played since mid-2011 because of injury.
Utah kicks off its 2013 season looking to avenge last season’s upset with a Thursday night home game against Utah State.
They hit the road in the second half of the season, traveling to Arizona, USC, Oregon and Washington State. Oregon and Stanford are tough new additions, replacing Cal and Washington from the Pac-12 North.