Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen gets asked the same question all the time.
"How is he, coach?"
Who to watch » Kendal Thompson has already won plaudits for his maturity, his work ethic, and his attention to detail. Soon we’ll see if coaches are as impressed with his play. The Oklahoma transfer will get the snaps to show he should be Utah’s starting quarterback, but in Travis Wilson he faces an experienced and popular competitor.
Key area » They are somewhat proven commodities. Still, senior Sese Ianu and junior Viliseni Fauonuku sat out spring with injuries and now face the tall order of replacing Tenny Palepoi and L.T. Tuipulotu. Behind them on the depth chart but nipping at their heels are sophomore Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (penciled in at starter before a foot injury last fall), redshirt freshman Filipo Mokofisi Jr. (whose father Ute fans may have heard of), and freshman Lowell Lotulelei (whose older brother Ute fans have probably heard of).
New face » Junior college transfer Kaelin Clay was one of the nation’s most productive wide receivers last year at Mt. San Antonio College. He has just one year of eligibility remaining, and fellow deep threats Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott will benefit if Clay makes it a good one.
Time to shine » Senior tight end Westlee Tonga will be 26 the day after the Idaho State game, and to this point of his college career he has just seven catches for 79 yards. Now’s his chance. The 6-foot-4, 252 pounder with Downy soft hands seems likely to play a key role in Dave Christensen’s spread offense.
Well, he’s 6-foot-1. He’s 199 pounds. He’s a leader and he’s poised and he’s the type of guy who regularly texted or called to pick the brain of his offensive coordinator before he ever got into town.
But Christensen hasn’t watched Oklahoma transfer quarterback Kendal Thompson play football — or at least, he hasn’t done so up close and in person.
"Check with me after the first practice," he told the latest person to ask him on Thursday.
Utah is embarking on three weeks of preparation for one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, and all eyes are on Thompson and the man he’s trying to unseat, Travis Wilson.
While Salt Lake City gets its first look at the former Sooner, Wilson will get his first look at contact since discovering an intracranial artery condition that led the team to keep him off-limits since a loss to Arizona State last November.
"Staff has indicated to me and to him that he’s at no greater risk than anybody else with this condition that he has," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said at Pac-12 Media Days in Los Angeles. "So we’re just moving forward as though he’s a hundred percent."
Utah needs at least somebody to be 100 percent. Quarterback is the top story at preseason camps across the nation, but none more so than at Utah, where the same quarterback has not started and finished a season since Brian Johnson led the Utes to a Sugar Bowl triumph in 2008.
For all the promise Thompson may have, Wilson is still just 20 (hence, his drinking citation at a Tim McGraw concert last week), and he showed flashes last season of being the top-tier Pac-12 passer fans have longed for since gaining entry to the conference in 2011.
Christensen’s offense will demand that whoever emerges as starter plays fast. The offense got off to a sloppy start in spring as the group tried to adjust to new terminology, new schemes and a quicker pace. Now Christensen says the key will be that they hit the ground, literally, running.
A leaner offensive line features three seemingly sure things in junior tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, senior guard Junior Salt, and junior center Siaosi Aiono. The remaining two spots will be fought for by senior Marc Pouvave, junior Andrew Albers, sophomores Isaac Asiata and J.J. Dielman, redshirt freshman Salesi Uhatafe and freshman Jackson Barton.
The Utes also enter camp with excellent depth at receiver (with junior Kenneth Scott returning from injury and junior college transfer Kaelin Clay entering the mix) and running back (after the emergence of redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and the addition of well-rounded junior college transfer Devontae Booker).
"The great thing is there’s going to be competition," Christensen said. "That’s what I love. Everybody gets better if there’s somebody behind them trying to take their job."
Meanwhile, the pre-camp depth chart for the defense may be a safer bet.
Coaches feel confident that junior college senior transfer Tevin Carter will be worthy of a starting spot at free safety, freeing up senior Eric Rowe to move to cornerback, where they believe he has all-conference potential.
The Utes will begin camp without linebackers Gionni Paul (junior, broken foot) and Jacoby Hale (senior, torn ACL), but junior Jason Whittingham returns to the fold after sitting out spring camp. Utah plays enough nickel defense that if Whittingham and junior Jared Norris remain healthy, coaches think they’ll be able to survive a spell without Paul and Hale.
The key questions on defense are 1. Who will step up at defensive tackle, and 2. What will Utah do to shore up its pass defense after allowing 267 yards per game last season? Making matters worse: All but one of Utah’s Pac-12 opponents (Arizona) returns the same starting quarterback.
The onus will be on sophomores Justin Thomas and Reginald Porter to remain on the upward trajectory they appeared to be on in spring and for sophomore Hunter Dimick and junior Jason Fanaika to offset the loss of consistent quarterback pressure wrought by New York Jets seventh-rounder Trevor Reilly. Sophomore Pita Taumoepenu has a chance to be a passing-down specialist, a la Thretton Palamo, but coaches would like to see strive to become an every-down defensive end.
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