Utes' defense main focus in spring
After putting so much emphasis on the offense last year, much of the Utah Utes' focus when they open spring practice Tuesday will be on the defense.
Utah's defense loses seven starters, including its linebacking corps of Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright and Kepa Gaison.
In contrast, the Utes' offense returns the heart of its lineup, although replacements for lineman Zane Beadles and receivers David Reed and Aiona Key must be identified.
"The defense is definitely where we have our most question marks," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We have a good talent base to work from, but ... we are short on experience."
Former quarterback Chad Manis, J.J. Williams and Chaz Walker have some experience at linebacker as does Nai Fotu, who will move to middle linebacker after playing left end in 2009.
However, getting his group a lot of snaps, even if it is in just spring ball, is a priority for Whittingham.
"Nai played [strong side linebacker] before but there is some carryover for him," he said. "But he's still going to have a learning curve like for everyone."
In the secondary, Kamaron Yancy and Conroy Black are going to be asked to make an immediate impact. Both were JC transfers who were with the Utes last year in limited roles. Black redshirted while Yancy was hindered by injuries most of the season.
"He had a hard time staying healthy, but he's healthy now," Whittingham said.
Offensively, the Utes will continue to develop quarterback Jordan Wynn who won the starting job last year after Terrance Cain struggled.
"He's a smart kid and we feel we can give him whatever he needs to be successful and he can learn it," Whittingham said of Wynn. "He's a lot like Brian Johnson and Alex Smith. He has an ability to grasp concepts and process information. This year we're looking for what he did in the bowl game which is be a team leader."
Wynn benefits from having three seasoned backs to help him. Matt Asiata returns, thanks to the NCAA granting him another year because of his injuries. So does Eddie Wide, who went from being a backup to a 1,000-yard rusher. However, Asiata won't participate in spring ball while he continues to rehab his knee and Wide will see only limited time.
That means spring ball is the time for sophomore Sausan Shakerin to prove he deserves more carries.
For the receivers, returners DeVonte Christopher and Luke Matthews, as well as redshirt freshman Sean Fitzgerald, have been tabbed as the guys who need to prove they can deliver when the ball is thrown their way.
Overall, Whittingham said he is excited about his team's potential and believes it can build on the results of 2009 when it went 10-3 and finished ranked No. 18.
"Every year there are challenges and holes you have to fill," he said. "They're different year to year, but the rebuilding process is just the same. There isn't a lot of difference there, you still have to find new guys to step up."
1. Who will step forward and be the defensive leader? That role was handled by linebackers Kepa Gaison and Stevenson Sylvester last year, but without any experienced linebackers returning, it's a mystery as to who will be the defensive spark this season. Identifying that player is a priority for coach Kyle Whittingham.
2. How good is Sean Fitzgerald? Both Whittingham and offensive co-coordinator Aaron Roderick are heaping praise on Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound redshirt freshman who stood out in bowl practices last year. Can he do enough in the spring to earn a starting role?
3. How will Brian Johnson's presence help Jordan Wynn? After spending much of the 2009 season in an observer's role at practice, Johnson officially has been added to Utah's staff as quarterbacks coach. What kind of influence Utah's winningest quarterback has on Wynn will be something to follow.
4. What role will the tight ends play this year? Sophomore Kendrick Moeai and Westlee Tonga, a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder out of Spring, Texas, who originally signed with the Utes in 2007 then went on an LDS Church mission, have very good hands. If Utah's bowl game was any indication, when Moeai caught two passes for 21 yards, the tight ends could be involved much more in the offense as receivers than they have in the past.
5. Is Conroy Black the secondary's next star? Black redshirted last season due to injuries but now is healthy. According to defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, Black runs a 4.2 and could play at either corner or safety.
QB, Jordan Wynn » Replaced Terrance Cain as starter for last five games.
RB, Eddie Wide » Went from backup to being a 1,000-yard rusher.
WR, Jereme Brooks » Versatile player who will be a team leader as a senior.
Dave Kruger » Started some in place of injured lineman Kenape Eliapo, is developing into a star player.
J.J. Williams » Sophomore in the linebacker rotation had 18 tackles in the regular season.
Justin Taplin-Ross » Filled in when safety Joe Dale was injured in bowl game, started one game this year and had 26 tackles, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery in regular season.
Tuesday » First day, 3-5 p.m. at the practice fields.
March 18 » Final practice before spring break.
March 29 » Practice resumes.
April 2 » Scrimmage at Rice-Eccles.
April 10 » Scrimmage at Rice-Eccles.
April 17 » Red and White game at Rice-Eccles (1 p.m.).
*All practices are open to the public