Kragthorpe: Cornerbacks create big issue for Utah, BYU
Asked during the Pac-12 Football Media Day about his biggest concerns, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham responded, "Without a doubt, quarterback ..."
That's according to the official transcript of the proceedings, which further quoted Whittingham: "We are rebuilding the quarterback position."
The context makes clear his comments were about cornerbacks, not quarterbacks, but the mistake is forgivable. Questions do persist about sophomore QB Travis Wilson, and the Utes seemingly always have plugged in capable, dependable corners.
Keith McGill and Justin Thomas may grow into that description this season, but who knows? The picture is even more blurry at BYU, where the Cougars lost returning starter Jordan Johnson to a season-ending knee injury this month, after junior college transfer Trent Trammell was hurt on the first day of spring practice in March.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, almost straight-faced, even asked a group of media members if anybody had eligibility remaining, inviting them to a tryout. The plea came after another corner was injured last week, and before freshman Dallin Leavitt now a projected starter returned to practice.
In my attempt to name a preseason all-state team among Utah colleges, Utah State's Nevin Lawson is a clear-cut choice. The other cornerback? That's a challenge.
Imagine being a defensive coordinator, with even bigger worries than mine. Mendenhall says he may have to adjust BYU's scheme to protect inexperienced corners. That's also a distinct possibility for Utah's Kalani Sitake, whose strategy relies heavily on man-to-man coverage by the corners that enables other defenders to stop the run and rush the passer.
Whether Sitake can count on his new corners will be determined next week, when Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton comes to town.
Walking off the Rice-Eccles Stadium field after a recent practice, Sitake was not happy with the success of Utah's receivers against his defenders. That's not uncommon this time of year, when the offensive guys have become accustomed to the coverage techniques, but it's disturbing.
"That's just the life they live," Sitake said. "You're going to get beat. For some reason, you can do it great nine times in a row. That 10th time, you give up a big play and everyone remembers that play. So they just have to be mentally strong and we have to keep working with them."
Sitake added, "You ask them to be perfect, and it's never going to be that way."
At this point, the Utes would settle for adequate. The corners make an interesting pair: There's McGill, the senior, a converted safety who has struggled to lose the weight necessary to become faster; and Thomas, the redshirt freshman, whose last appearance in a football game came as a Texas high school junior in 2010, before he was ruled too old to play as a senior.
Their position coach is a personal injury attorney whose former law firm sponsors the annual Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open. While his onetime colleagues are playing in a series of pro-am golf events this week, Sharrieff Shah is trying to get his cornerbacks ready for Keeton and the Aggies.
Shah inherited veteran corners Moe Lee, Ryan Lacy and Reggie Topps in his first year of coaching, but he's facing an entirely different challenge now. He likes the competition the openings have created, but nobody knows just what to expect from the new players.
Same story in Provo, where JC transfer Robertson Daniel whose name is sure to cause me the same problems as ex-Ute linebacker Stevenson Sylvester and Leavitt will take the field next week at Virginia as first-time starters.
The Cougars also play USU in the first half of the season, so this is a pretty good year to be Chuckie Keeton.