New league, same attitude for Whittingham's Utes
The Utes have everything from a new conference to a new offense to new logos on their football field as they go into preseason camp.
But even among the biggest buzzes of college football in 2011, some things never change. What remains the same is Utah's order of business, says the Utes' matter-of-fact coach.
"We have a pretty focused, good group of guys," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It might take a couple days, but then we should settle right in and go about things business as usual."
That view is from Whittingham's laser-like focus on the Xs and Os that make his program successful.
For the ever-growing Utah fan base and collegiate football followers everywhere, Utah's 2011 season is like none other in the program's history.
Utah's move to the Pac-12 is one of the biggest topics being discussed in college football with outlets such as the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and others zeroing in on the program. No longer do they look at Utah and wonder "What is a Ute?" Such unfamiliarity has been replaced by the question of "How will the Utes do playing with the big boys?"
So far the Utes have received several votes of confidence and were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South behind USC and Arizona State in the league's preseason media poll.
Utah offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom said he is unaccustomed to the Utes getting so much attention and admits it even feels awkward.
"It's a little weird being one of the 'in' schools," he said. "We're so used to fighting our way to the top."
All the excitement and buzz hasn't gone to the players' heads, Bergstrom insisted.
If anything, it has focused the Utes even more as camp begins today.
The players have been hard at work during the summer, knowing they have much to prove once the season starts, Bergstrom said.
"We've played a lot of [Pac-12] teams like Cal, Oregon State and UCLA before," he said. "But we know the biggest difference is going to be the week in and week out."
For that reason, developing depth is one of Utah's biggest camp priorities.
The offensive line in particular needs to find players who can back up veterans John Cullen, Bergstrom and Tevita Stevens, who will start at center after playing at guard for two seasons.
The list of candidates to fill the spots was shortened this week when the Utes found out Benji Kemoeatu, a transfer from Lackawanna Community College, failed to meet his academic requirements and won't join the Utes. Another transfer, Po'u Palelei from Salt Lake Community College, is "50-50" on joining the Utes, according to Whittingham.
However, the Utes don't have any plans to move players from other positions to beef up the line, preferring to see what the younger players can do first, he said.
"We'll take three or four days to evaluate and see where we are," he said.
Depth also needs to be found in the secondary, where the loss of Brandon Burton and Justin Taplin-Ross and the move of Brian Blechen from safety to linebacker leaves the Utes without any returning starters.
Junior college transfer Keith McGill, senior Conroy Black, junior Ryan Lacy and sophomore Michael Walker are just a few of the players Whittingham believes show promise.
Elsewhere, the Utes will continue to learn offensive coordinator Norm Chow's new offense and quarterback Jordan Wynn gets back under center after missing spring ball while recovering from shoulder surgery.
The Utes plan to limit his throws in camp to make sure he stays healthy, Whittingham said.
"Keeping Jordan healthy is priority one for us," he said.
The other priorities? Well, they're the same as ever keep things short-sighted to stay on pace for the big picture.
"We're focusing on Montana State," Whittingham said of the Sept. 1 opener. "Then our long-term goal is to compete for the conference title."
In short • The Utes' official preparations for their Pac-12 debut begin Thursday with the opening of camp. All practices and scrimmages are closed to the public.
What to look for • The Utes installed a new offense during the spring that they'll continue to learn. Quarterback Jordan Wynn will get his first action since the close of the 2010 season after missing spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Depth chart decisions • The biggest battle will be at running back, with freshman Harvey Langi, junior college transfer John White and former rugby star Thretton Palamo vying for the starting role.
Most anticipated newcomer • Junior college transfer Keith McGill, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound safety, is expected to make a big impact on a secondary short on experience. Already, he is listed as a possible starter at free safety.