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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes offensive linesman Daniel Nielson (70) and the Utes prepare to take the field as the Colorado Buffaloes host the University of Utah Utes, college football Friday November 23, 2012 in Boulder.
Utah football: Utes happy with spring session

Coach Whittingham says Utah’s offensive line is the team’s most-improved area.

First Published Apr 28 2013 04:09 pm • Last Updated Apr 29 2013 07:40 pm

Work on tempo, make the offense more explosive, build depth on the offensive line, see what the strengths of the running backs are, continue to grow the linebacking unit and bolster the secondary — those were just a few of the priorities during Utah’s 2013 spring ball session.

It was a lot to ask for in 15 practices, but by and large, the Utes met enough of their goals to satisfy the coaches. Anyone involved in team sports knows satisfying those guys isn’t easy.

At a glance

What we learned

Utah’s offensive line has improved immensely from a year ago. Where depth was a problem last year, the Utes have so much depth that sophomore Daniel Nielson was moved from offense to defense.

What we don’t know

Utah’s receivers are deep, but dropped passes were a constant theme during spring camp. Will they be more sure-handed in the fall?

Players who impressed

Defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, running backs Karl Williams, Lucky Radley and James Poole and offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi all had solid spring efforts. The battle for the running back role could be closer than expected in the fall, particularly with returner Kelvin York missing so much of spring due to a foot injury.

Players who must impress

The cornerback position remains suspect as senior Keith McGill had a hot-and-cold spring and junior college transfer Davion Orphey was slowed by injuries, both must step up their game in the fall.

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"It was a very productive spring," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We improved as a whole and made some big strides in areas we needed to."

Overall, the offense responded well to the adjustments co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson made, leaving Whittingham confident the Utes’ offensive woes might be behind the team.

"We knew we had to do whatever makes us better," Whittingham said. "Bringing Dennis Erickson in was a move that helped us a lot, at least through spring, but we have a lot of work to do still."

For his part, Erickson was positive about the Utes’ development through spring and was impressed with the way the team picked up his changes.

"We’re going to be better than a lot of people think we are," he said.

One of those areas responsible for all the positive vibes was the offensive line. A weak link in 2012, the offensive line was anointed the most improved area on the team by Whittingham in the spring. The left side was the most impressive, with tackle Jeremiah Poutasi and guard Jeremiah Tofaeono excelling. Tofaeono, a senior, emerged as one of the team’s strongest leaders, and Poutasi has the potential to be Utah’s next great lineman. The sophomore is 6-foot-5, 345-pounds, but is "light on his feet," in the words of Whittingham.

"It has been a long time since we have had his blend of size and agility," Whittingham said. "He has everything you want, the mentality, agility and athleticism."

Senior Vyncent Jones is solid at center, right guard Junior Salt is making the transition from defense to offense well and Siaosi Aiono is anchored at right tackle. That all five were able to make it through spring ball was a bigger deal than anyone might realize, Whittingham said.

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"The last few years, we haven’t had that consistency because guys were getting hurt," he said. "This year, they were able to play together, and that helped them get comfortable with one another and really jell."

One guy the Utes didn’t want getting too comfortable was quarterback Travis Wilson. The coaches consistently played up backup Adam Schulz’s improvement to keep the fire under Wilson, and the sophomore responded.

"He had his best performance in the spring game," Whittingham said. "All the quarterbacks did some good things, though, and closed the gap."

There wasn’t expected to be much of a battle at running back with Kelvin York returning, but with the senior limited with a toe injury, backups Lucky Radley, James Poole and Karl Williams all had a chance to impress the coaches and didn’t disappoint.

"It’s a tight race coming out of spring, and the competition will definitely continue in the fall," Whittingham said. "All four showed a lot of good things, and we have a lot of depth there. That is something we feel really good about."

The defensive effort came out of spring with mixed results. Frustratingly, many of the expected starters missed spring with injuries, including defensive ends Trevor Reilly, Nate Orchard and Jason Whittingham and cornerback Wykie Freeman. Senior Brian Blechen, who is moving from safety to linebacker, was hampered by tendinitis in his knee.

Whittingham doesn’t believe their absences will hurt the Utes, since most are seasoned players. In their absence, younger players such as tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and safety Tyron Morris-Edwards emerged as solid contributors.

The defense still has some question marks, though, with young linebackers and cornerbacks who were inconsistent in the spring.

Whittingham isn’t too worried about the defense, believing it, like the defenses before it, will develop into a good one.

The offense has always been more of a question mark. There, the Utes might not have found all the answers, but they appear at least well on their way to better days.

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