By Lya Wodraska
The Salt Lake Tribune
We don’t know if an untested offensive line can keep Utah’s quarterbacks safe from Pac-12 defenses. We don’t know if quarterback Jordan Wynn’s shoulder has the durability to last a season. We don’t know which backup running backs will play the most.
But one thing we do know as the Utes head into their regular season practice mode is Utah’s offense has more playmakers this year than it has in any recent season.
If the Utes can’t improve their paltry 25 points a game average from a year ago, which ranked just ninth in the Pac-12, then new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson will have a lot of explaining to do.
Johnson, the former quarterbacks’ coach who earned a bump in salary from $120,000 to $225,000 when he was promoted to coordinator, is under pressure to prove he was worth the hiring risk.
His first order of business: livening what was a stagnant offense in 2011. Part of Utah’s offensive problem was the season-ending injury to Wynn, which forced the Utes to rely on running back John White. But Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t really like Norm Chow’s play-calling either, believing the Utes needed more versatility despite Wynn’s absence.
At least fans can take some comfort in knowing they weren’t the only ones going slightly buggy watching White run time after time or Hays throwing those little 3-and-5 yard dinky passes. The game plan was effective enough to get the Utes to the Sun Bowl, but the product wasn’t exactly known as one of the more captivating and dangerous offenses in the league.
That should change in 2012.
This year, not only is Wynn healthier, but the Utes have an improved version of Jon Hays backing up Wynn as well as a rising freshman in Travis Wilson.
Wilson has a good arm and is a very good runner, too, giving the Utes a new option to their quarterbacking plans.
Johnson has said time and again that his offense won’t look drastically different from what the Utes were doing last year before Wynn was hurt. However, the way in which he plans to use the players should produce different results.
Johnson’s favorite line through fall camp was that he intends to use players to the best of their abilities.
What sounds like typical coach-speak does represent what the Utes want to do in 2012. Luckily, they have the players to be versatile based on what was on display in fall camp.
The quarterbacks practiced under center and in the shotgun formation, giving Wynn a flexibility he said he likes. The biggest difference, though, is the Utes plan to make use of a deep receiving group by going downfield more.
Doing so will open new territory for the Utes, who played a more conservative game with Hays at quarterback.
Most importantly, Wynn said he can handle the long ball this year as opposed to last year when he struggled.
“I can make those throws this year,” Wynn said. “Whether it is the way B.J. is calling the plays or the way I am throwing, we should be a lot more explosive downfield this year.”
Helping the Utes in that cause is a solid group of receivers. Last year DeVonte Christopher was the only consistent big-play guy.
This year, the Utes should have more options with sophomore Dres Anderson looking more consistent in camp, sophomore Kenneth Scott looking strong and junior Sean Fitzgerald finally healthy.
The biggest contributors in the passing game, though, could be the tight ends. Dallin Rogers, Jake Murphy, David Rolf, Westlee Tonga and Kendrick Moeai all have talent to be big contributors.
Rolf has the starting nod, but the gap between the tight ends isn’t much.
After Saturday’s final scrimmage, Whittingham joked the Utes could use all five on the field at the same time.
That might not be such a far-fetched thought because the Utes plan to use them as receivers and in two-back sets as well.
Look for Rogers to join returning running back John White in the backfield.
White, who was the workhorse of the offense last year rushing 316 times for 1,519 yards, will get the help he needs from backups Kelvin York and Jarrell Oliver.
Conventional thought would be that York, a junior college transfer, would take most of the backup carries, but Oliver excelled at the end of camp and could emerge as the better back by year’s end.
The big question remains Utah’s offensive line, particularly the tackles. Senior Miles Mason is slotted to start at left tackle and junior Percy Taumoelau is expected to start at right tackle. However, Mason missed much of fall camp with an ankle injury and was joined on the sidelines by several other offensive linemen who were hurt including right guard Sam Brenner, backup center Vyncent Jones and left guard Latu Heimuli.
The coaches insist the line will be fine, but if there is any position to worry about, it has to be the line’s vulnerability.
Defensively, camp didn’t reveal many surprises. The Utes were disappointed to lose backup lineman Junior Salt to a foot injury for the season, but Utah still has a lot of depth along the line.
The linebackers and defensive backs are young and still developing, but players such as sophomore Terrell Reese, freshman Jason Whittingham and sophomore Joe Smith all had good moments in camp and are capable of contributing.
The defense is solid.
It’s the offense, it seems as always, that has the most to prove going into the season.