Five storylines to watch for in Utah’s football spring camp
Spring football • Pay close attention to QB, offensive philosophy and stars returning.
Published: March 17, 2014 01:15PM
Updated: March 15, 2014 08:20PM
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Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Kenneth Scott during the University of Utah's Red-White Spring football game, Saturday April 20, 2013 in Salt Lake City.

Five months have passed since the night Utah arrived.

In beating No. 5 Stanford last October, the Utes finally had the signature win that was sure to vault them into the Pac-12’s upper reaches. In Travis Wilson, they had their quarterback. In Dennis Erickson, they had their chess master.

Seeming oblivious to the gnarly gash on his throwing hand, a jubilant Wilson was hoisted into the air as fans with free digits used them to do the bowl math:

Beat Arizona and Colorado, and we’re in. Beat USC and Colorado, and we’re in. Beat Washington State and Colorado, and ... you get the picture.

As it happened, they beat only Colorado. Wilson was never the same, and doctors later shut him down when they discovered pre-existing artery damage in his brain. Erickson was demoted to running backs coach, and co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson left for Mississippi State.

Now the Ute fans enter another spring asking the old familiar questions:

Will they get production at quarterback? Will a new offensive coordinator have the answers?

For the sake of variety, The Tribune brings you a look at these and three more storylines to watch for as the Utes begin spring practice Tuesday, beginning a potential make-or-break season for Kyle Whittingham’s program.

Wilson returns to QB logjam

Wilson is projected to start if doctors give him a full medical clearance in the fall. But it’s complicated.

First, there is the concern that Utah will waste reps on a quarterback who may not be able to play. And if he is able to play, his injury scare may prevent “Bulldog” from doing the types of things that earned him his nickname — like hurdling a Northern Colorado defender on his first college carry, or flattening Cal linebacker Nathan Broussard while blocking on a reverse.

But Whittingham considers that unlikely. “If the doctors do in fact give him a completely clean bill of health and they give the green light, then my guess is that he’s going to be the same type of physical player,” he said.

Wilson will share spring snaps with junior Adam Schulz ­— who was often steady, if rarely masterful, in Wilson’s absence — and a trio of redshirt freshmen in Conner Manning, Brandon Cox and Micah Thomas.

“It’s a high priority to whittle down the field,” Whittingham said — particularly so because days after Wilson received clearance for non-contact drills, Utah announced the transfer of junior Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson. The 6-foot-1 dual-threat quarterback may have an ally in new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who recruited him as a prep.

Next year, the plot will continue to thicken. Add in true freshman Donovan Isom, returning LDS missionary Chase Hansen, and Wyoming junior transfer Jason Thompson, and there are nine young men hoping to play QB for the Utes come 2015.

Say it with us: Tempo!

It’s hard to know in what ways Utah’s offense will look different in 2014, because coaches are saying the same things that they’ve said the past two years: Spread it out. Get guys in space. Push the tempo.

But incoming offensive line coach Jim Harding — a protege of Christensen’s as a player at Toledo, a GA at Missouri and a co-offensive coordinator at Wyoming — says his longtime boss’s approach isn’t as similar to Erickson’s and Brian Johnson’s as it may seem.

“We’ll play with, in practice, a 20-second play clock, and if we don’t get a snap off — whether it’s in a scrimmage or even in a team period — if we don’t get that ball snapped within 20 seconds, the kids will run after practice,” he said.

And they won’t just play fast, they’ll try to play smart.

“There’s no sense in running a fast-paced offense if you’re going three-and-out, but if you focus on getting that first first down and then you allow the tempo to catch up to the defense, that’s where you start making some things happen,” Harding said.

Back from the sidelines

For a handful of the Utes’ best players, 2013 didn’t count:

• Powerful 6-foot-3 junior receiver Kenneth Scott was expected to provide a sure-handed target to complement Dres Anderson’s speed on the opposite side, but his season ended with a lower-leg injury in the first quarter of the season opener against Utah State.

• Gionni Paul, a junior linebacker transfer from Miami, terrorized the 2013 Utah offense on the scout team. After just six months in Salt Lake, his fellow Utes thought enough of Paul to name him spring captain. “They respond to his leadership,” says defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.

• Wherever he plays, 35-game veteran Brian Blechen is a “big-time playmaker,” says Sitake. After receiving a medical redshirt last season for tendonitis in his knee, the onetime linebacker will mostly likely stick at strong safety.

• You may not know much about Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, but that’s only because the sophomore defensive tackle was injured last fall camp: The 320-pounder was slated to start at nose guard. Sitake says that in Tu’ikolovatu — expected to return this fall — he sees shades of Star Lotulelei.

• Another relative unknown who was dominant on the scout team is Utah State transfer Jason Fanaika, a junior defensive end/tackle hybrid who coaches expect to compete for a starting job.

Youth movements

Former Brighton standout Jackson Barton, one of the top-rated recruits in school history, may well become Utah’s second true freshman starting tackle in three years.

“He came in in great shape,” said Christensen. “He’s a big, long athlete, which is what we really like up front.”

Another Brighton alum, sophomore linebacker Uaea Masina, has a fan in Sitake. Even with proven starters at linebacker like Jared Norris, Jason Whittingham and Jacoby Hale — and with Paul joining the fray — Sitake said that it’s too soon to count out Masina for playing time this fall.

Also, Ute coaches have preached the value of team speed, and dart-like redshirt freshman Troy McCormick could snag some playing time at running back behind starter Bubba Poole while Lucky Radley rehabilitates from injury.

Making the switch

Junior C.J. Poutasi is penciled in at left guard on the Utes’ spring roster, after playing left tackle last season and right tackle as a freshman. Poutasi has impressed Harding with his commitment — losing 15 pounds in less than a month since he was asked to trim down.

“That, I think — especially with how highly thought of that kid was coming out of high school and how well he played as a true freshman — for him to say ‘I see where you’re coming from’ and to buy in, I think is a good reflection,” he said.

Christensen will shuffle the line until he finds the best five guys, he said. The only lock may be right guard and leader-of-few-words Junior Salt, a senior.

Fellow senior Eric Rowe is still listed as a free safety, but Sitake believes he has the potential to be an all-conference cornerback in the mold of departed senior Keith McGill or former Ute Sean Smith.

Junior college transfer Tevin Carter was injured and is unable to participate in the spring, but if he impresses in the fall it will facilitate Rowe’s move.

mpiper@sltrib.com Twitter: @matthew_piper

Utah spring camp

The Utes’ 15-practice camp opens Tuesday. Weather permitting, practices will be held outdoors at the practice field west of the Spence & Cleone Eccles Football Center and at Rice-Eccles Stadium. All practices held outdoors are open to the public. The Utes will scrimmage in Rice-Eccles on April 4 at 4 p.m., April 12 at 10 a.m., and in the Red-White game April 19 at 1 p.m. For more info, visit the team’s website. > utahutes.com