The attention on Utah’s football team in recent days has focused on the defense and the three-game suspension of safety Brian Blechen for failing a drug test.
Thursday, though, the focus returns to the play on the field, not the extracurricular activities, with the opening of camp.
The immediate concern? Finding some depth along the offensive line.
The Utes must replace tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom, who anchored the positions last year.
The leading candidates are junior Percy Taumoelau and freshman Daniel Nielson. Both received a lot of time in spring ball but neither did enough to ease Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s concerns.
“They both improved,” he said. “But we’re young. That position is our most pressing issue, but we recruited to that end, so we should have a lot of guys in the mix.”
The Utes will give junior college transfer Carlos Lozano, freshman J.J. Dielman, freshman Kala Friel, freshman Jeremiah Poutasi and returner Miles Mason looks at the spot. The Utes had hoped to have junior Marc Pouvave on board as well, but he’ll miss the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Returning quarterback Jordan Wynn says it is his goal to make it through an entire season after injuries have plagued him the last two seasons. Wynn looked stronger overall and played with confidence in the spring, but it’s clear Whittingham doesn’t want to leave the quarterback on his own.
“We have to find guys to protect the quarterback,” he said. “That is our main concern, the offensive line, offensive line.”
Wynn wasn’t the only quarterback looking good in the spring. Freshman Travis Wilson showed off a strong arm and could push the veteran. He at least gives the Utes more depth at the quarterback spot so Utah won’t have to rely only on Jon Hays as they did last year.
Whittingham stressed that no job is guaranteed, but he also maintained he was happy with the way Wynn looked in the spring.
“He was throwing with confidence,” he said. “He is still our guy, but every position is up for competition.”
The rest of the offense should be solid too, with John White returning at running back and the addition of junior college transfer Kelvin York. The Utes return a lot of experience at receiver and have perhaps their best lineup ever at tight end and H-back.
Senior David Rolf is slated to start ahead of Jake Murphy at tight end and senior Dallin Rogers is penciled in as the starting H-back. However, passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick plans to use all the players he has available at those positions as the Utes return to a more dynamic, spread offense.
Defensively, the Utes’ focus in camp will be developing their linebackers and safeties.
Sophomore Jacoby Hale and LT Filiaga are competing for the starting role at rover linebacker while V.J. Fehoko is expected to start at middle. However, the Utes are eager to see how redshirt freshman Jared Norris and freshman Jason Whittingham, the coach’s nephew, develop.
At safety, junior Quade Chappuis suddenly has an opportunity to start thanks to Blechen’s suspension. However, the safety who could create the biggest stir in camp is sophomore Eric Rowe.
The free safety had a strong spring and expectations are high for him. Now, with Blechen sidelined, he becomes the leader of the group.
Overall, the defense should be Utah’s strong point once again, particularly with defensive lineman Star Lotulelei returning for his senior year.
Projected as a high draft pick by many NFL scouts, Lotulelei said he has no regrets in his decision and has worked hard in the summer to head into camp in good shape.
“We’re all excited and we’ve been working hard,” he said. “Even the new guys, they’ve come in in better shape than I did. We’ve got a good group.”
Key Utah dates
Thursday • Camp begins
Aug. 8 • Two-a-days begin
Aug. 9 • Scrimmage
Aug. 14 • Scrimmage
Aug. 18 • Scrimmage
Aug. 20 • Classes begin
Aug. 25 • Fan Fest (10 a.m. - 1 p.m.)
Aug. 30 • Season opener vs. Northern Colorado, 5:15 p.m.
What we want to know • Who will add depth to the offensive line is the biggest question for the Utes heading into camp. We also want to see how junior college transfer Junior Salt competes with Dave Kruger for the starting role on the defensive line.
Keep an eye on • Free safety Eric Rowe, who could be the breakout star for the defense this year.
Who is here • All of Utah’s players are expected to be in camp on time, with the exception of junior college transfer James Poole, who could join the team late.
Who isn’t here • Running back Harvey Langi is among the players who have left on a mission. … Players who will grayshirt this year and join the Utes in January are offensive linemen Zach Lindsay and Lio Lafaele and linebacker Moana Ofahengaue.