Utah football: Utes see improvement in disappointing season
From his expansive office in the northwest corner of Utah's new football training facility, coach Kyle Whittingham has a great view of Rice-Eccles Stadium, framed on a wintry day by fresh snowfall on the Wasatch foothills.
It's a view worthy to frame. Only on this day, that big, empty, quiet stadium seems to be mocking Whittingham. He and the rest of the Utes should still be in "season mode," prepping for a bowl game.
Whittingham instead is stuck in his office, evaluating and mulling over what went wrong that left the Utes short of bowl eligibility for a second year in a row.
The Utes, he maintains, are better than they were a year ago when they finished with the same 5-7 record. But does that belief ease the sting of failing to reach a goal? Not in the least for Whittingham, who admits this season was even more frustrating than last year's campaign because the Utes kept coming up short time and again.
"Just look at the two teams in the Pac-12 game," he said. "We beat Stanford and blow a 12-point lead against Arizona State going into the fourth quarter. We were close, but nobody cares about how close you get. You have to get over the hump and that is what we are working to do."
The Utes, who hadn't had back-to-back losing seasons since 1989 (4-8) and 1990 (4-7), aren't using the excuse of playing one of the nation's toughest schedules for their losing mark this year.
As Whittingham said, the conference competition only gets tougher with every season. So too does the schedule. Instead of playing three in-state teams, the Utes play Idaho State, Fresno State and at Michigan next season. The Utes also will have just four Pac-12 games at home instead of five.
"Next year, things are even tougher," Whittingham said. "But it is what it is. We're not bagging out; we have to get better."
The good news is Whittingham believes the Utes can improve enough to be competitive, as do his coordinators.
The defense loses some key players in tackles Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu, defensive end Trevor Reilly and cornerback Keith McGill.
Losing the three up front looks like Utah's defensive line will take a hit in productivity next year, but the Utes historically have been able to reload year to year without a dip in talent, and coordinator Kalani Sitake believes 2014 won't be any different.
"We have a lot of young guys coming up," he said. "A lot of younger guys were coming on at the end of the year, and I'm excited to see what they can do."
The linebacking corps will be solid with the starters returning and the addition of Gionni Paul, a transfer from Miami who sat out the 2013 season with the Utes due to transfer rules.
He'll have an immediate impact, the coaches predict. The Utes have enough talent and depth at the linebacker position that Whittingham said he feels comfortable moving Brian Blechen, who redshirted this season after knee surgery, from linebacker back to safety, where he has excelled in the past.
Such a move would allow the Utes to move Eric Rowe to cornerback from safety, thereby shoring up two positions that were shaky for the Utes this season.
The secondary was criticized a lot this year, but Sitake likened the situation to the linebackers last year.
"We had a lot of guys learning on the job and battling through and getting experience," he said. "They were on a learning curve, but they'll get better."
Offensively, Utah is in a quandary with the health status of quarterback Travis Wilson unknown. Whittingham said he hasn't decided whether to recruit another quarterback or stick with the three freshmen in the system plus sophomore Adam Schulz.
If Wilson can't return and freshman Connor Manning wins the job over the more athletic Schulz, Utah will have to tweak the offense again, an idea that isn't appealing but necessary.
"We will still use the spread, we still think that is our future," Whittingham said. "But we may have to modify it to play to the strength of the quarterback, whoever that is."
Utah must improve the skill positions through recruiting, although the return of Kenneth Scott, who missed the season with an ankle injury, will help the position.
"I like our young guys but we do need more speed," co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson said. "We need more speed at receiver, running back, those are the big areas for us."
While the offense wasn't as productive as the Utes needed it to be, Whittingham believes the overall philosophy is strong. Now it's a matter of executing everything properly, from the recruiting to the plays on the field.
This season, like last, was too short for Whittingham.
"We made a big jump to the Pac-12," he said. "It is a very competitive league and more competitive this year than the past, but we wouldn't want it any other way."
Well, except for the ending. The Utes would like it much different.
Utah football season synopsis
Utah seemed to have all the momentum it needed after it beat Stanford, but coach Kyle Whittingham said it all fizzled when quarterback Travis Wilson, above, suffered several minor injuries to his throwing hand that affected his play and dropped the Utes into a five-game losing streak.
Key players lost
Defensive leaders Tenny Palepoi, above sacking Cal QB Zach Maynard last year, Trevor Reilly and cornerback Keith McGill are among those the Utes must replace while the offense loses two key linemen in Jeremiah Tofaeono and Vyncent Jones. Jones, a center, was one of the team's most underrated players.
Key players returning
The Utes return their linebackers as well as receiver Dres Anderson, above. Tight end Jake Murphy has left the door open to go pro, but said for now he plans to return. Defensive end Nate Orchard will anchor the line, which should be solid again. Running back Harvey Langi, who played in 2011 before going on a mission, is scheduled to rejoin the team in June.
Utah hopes Los Angeles Southwest College safety Tevin Carter, who didn't qualify academically this year, will be able to join the team for 2014. Kaelin Clay, a receiver at Mt. San Antonio C.C., also should compete for playing time immediately.
Key offseason priority
The Utes will have a busy offseason recruiting the skill positions and possibly tweaking the offense to fit a new quarterback if Travis Wilson can't return.