Utah football: After mediocre Pac-12 debut, team picked as South runner-up
Universal City, Calif. • Last year the Utah Utes were all abuzz about their first season in a BCS league. This year? The buzz has been replaced by all business.
The Utes, who were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South division in a preseason media poll, were disappointed in their 4-5 league record last year and are determined to be even better in 2012.
"Last year we learned how competitive this conference is," said Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who participated in the Pac-12 media day at Universal Studios along with running back John White. "Every game is a hard-fought game, and you have to be mentally ready. There aren't any easy games."
After a rocky start, the Utes won four of their last five conference games then beat Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
White, who finished 11th in the nation in rushing, averaging 116.8 yards a game, believes that solid finish will carry over into the 2012 season.
"We've all been working hard in conditioning and in the weight room, and hopefully we will show that on the field this year," he said.
The Utes open camp Aug. 2 and kick off the season against Northern Colorado on Aug. 30.
The biggest task in camp will be forming some sort of depth chart at offensive tackle, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. Junior Percy Taumoelau and freshman Daniel Nielson are penciled in as starters, but they haven't solidified their roles by any means, Whittingham said.
"It's our most pressing issue," Whittingham said. "We recruited to that end, and we have seven guys fighting for two spots. We have to come away with a two-deep there."
Also getting scrutiny will be the quarterback position, where junior Jordan Wynn could be fighting to retain his starting role, especially after the way freshman Travis Wilson finished the spring strong.
Right now, the 6-foot-6 Wilson is listed as Wynn's backup along with returner Jon Hays, but Whittingham said Wynn, who suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game, doesn't have a lock on the position.
"Every job is up in the air. That is how it is for all of our positions," he said. "I wouldn't say we have a quarterback battle, at least not right now, but that is something we can let play itself out. We'll play whoever the best guy is; nothing is set in stone."
The one thing that must happen this year, no matter who is playing at quarterback, is getting more points on the board, Whittingham said.
The Utes averaged just 25 points a game last year under Norm Chow's offense. Only UCLA (23.07), Oregon State (21.83) and Colorado (19.77) fared worse.
While losing Wynn for the season certainly hurt Utah's offense, Whittingham hasn't hidden the fact he was unhappy with the production.
This year the Utes are going back to more of a spread element, Whittingham said.
"If we are going to contend, we have to be more productive on offense," he said.
The Utes liked the tweaks coordinator Brian Johnson has added to the offense.
"He is using all of our weapons, it's not just powering it through," White said. "He's going to run it there, throw it here, pitch it here. There is a lot of variety. We are feeling great about it."
The Utes are feeling great about the season, too, especially now that they know more of what to expect from league play.
"Last year was about what we expected," Whittingham said. "But there is some familiarity this year, and that might be a positive. But when you come down to it, no matter what league you are in, it's just football."