Controversies backgrounded because Utah is a contender


SALT LAKE CITY -- Kyle Whittingham, who would give Texas' Charlie Strong a challenge as the most yoked-up coach in a Power 5 conference, ends a workout session -- a little extra core work, of course -- in his spacious, well-appointed office inside Utah's impressive Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center and walks over to a meeting room. He kicks back in a leather chair and props his feet on the table. He's chatty and in no hurry.

For a coach who saw both coordinators decide to bolt and gritted his teeth through a public dust-up with his athletic director, Chris Hill, after the 2014 season, Whittingham seems pretty chill.

"All I can say there is [Hill] has his job to do, his challenges, and I have my job and my challenges," Whittingham said. "That’s as deep as I want to get into it. There was a lot of drama. It was blown out of proportion. That’s all behind me. I’ve moved on."

Though it's fair to say Whittingham remains a little crispy on that conflict, it was easier to move on and turn his focus to the football part of football, because he can say this: "It starts with our tailback. He was the catalyst for our offense last year. The offense runs through him. He’s the centerpiece. But he doesn’t gain 1,500 yards without a good O-line, and we’ve got four of those five starters back."

Yes, the Utes welcome back first-team All-Pac-12 running back Devontae Booker, a you-know-he's-coming-but-you-still-can't-stop-him runner from 2014, a guy who might immediately establish himself as a leading Heisman Trophy contender in the season opener against Michigan, a game that figures to get national attention because the Wolverines hired Beyoncé -- or someone other famous person -- to replace Brady Hoke during the offseason.

Or it might be because Whittingham also can say this: "We’ve got as good a defensive line as we’ve ever had this year and offensive line is just the same."

Understand that Whittingham isn't an "Everything is Awesome!" coach. He'll tell you what concerns him and what doesn't. In recent years, it was his quarterback, or his offensive tackles or his secondary. This year? Oh, the depth at receiver isn't ideal, though Kenneth Scott is a capable first option. And things are unresolved at free safety.

That's about it. A short to-do list, proven talent on both sides of the ball and seven home games are why folks might want to take a closer look at the Utes, who welcome back 16 starters from a team that finished 9-4 and ranked 21st in 2014 while posting the program's first winning Pac-12 record. Though the South Division could defend its crown as the toughest division in college football, Utah is a promising dark-horse candidate to earn a berth in the Pac-12 title game.

Glass half-empty sorts might volunteer that staff changes and behind-the-scenes intrigue could complicate things. Not only did Utah lose Dave Christensen after just one year, forcing Whittingham to appoint his eighth offensive coordinator in as many seasons, and longtime defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki, he lost them seemingly as collateral damage from the conflict with Hill over myriad issues, including assistant coach contracts. Gossip got so thick when Whittingham wasn't talking to reporters that there was intense speculation even he might leave.

Hill and Whittingham continue to say the impasse was "blown out of proportion," but neither goes so far as to even imply they joined hands, sang "Kumbaya" and all was again hunky dory.

"I’m management. He’s labor. You have to figure out what is right. I was disappointed that so much of it went public. I don’t know how. We’re moving on," Hill said. "One of my coaches said, 'We can be friendly but we can’t be friends.' That’s the way it is. The bottom line, is it something that is going to inhibit us from doing well? The answer is no."

Not surprisingly, both want the focus to be on the team, which is undeniably intriguing.

Start with defense, where the Utes and California will be the only conference teams running a 4-3 base defense next season. The front seven, led by end Hunter Dimick and middle linebacker Jared Norris, sets up to be the Pac-12's stoutest (though, yes, there is a lot to like about UCLA, too). It looks fully capable of stopping the run and, again, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks -- see a nation leading 4.23 sacks per game in 2014.

The Utes averaged 4.4 yards per rush -- Booker averaged 5.2 yards per carry -- last season, which ranked fourth in the conference, despite the conference's least potent passing game.

Good defense and a reliable running game -- we often hear that's a formula for success, albeit a conservative way of thinking in a flashy, QB-centered conference. Of course, it served Stanford well when it won consecutive conference crowns -- and beat Oregon head-to-head -- in 2012 and 2013.

Moreover, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Utes' passing game will be on the up-tick this fall. For one, quarterback Travis Wilson is on track to be a four-year starter. Though he was up-and-down last season, losing his job at one point to Kendal Thompson, he is in the midst of his best spring, according to Whittingham. That shouldn't be too surprising because Wilson, despite seeing Christensen leave for Texas A&M, is using the same system for a second season in a row for the first time in his career.

"It’s hard changing systems over and over again, because you never get the rhythm and flow to it," Scott said. "[For example], in a two-minute session now, Travis and I are on point. We know where we’re supposed to be. We know the timing."

Beyond offense and defense, Utah welcomes back kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett, both of whom earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season and likely will be national awards candidates this season.

So what might hold the Utes back?

It could be the enduring "what if" since they joined the conference: What if Utah got A-list play behind center? That is still a question, and the Utes won't be a top Pac-12 and national contender until they answer in the affirmative. Wilson and Thompson are seniors, so one of the more encouraging developments of the spring practices has been the impressive development of redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Hansen.

In 2014, the Utes won nearly all their close games, going 5-2 in conference games decided by seven or fewer points. Our statistically minded friends might frown about that and become party poopers with their talk about "adjusting to the mean."

And there's that Hill-Whittingham soap opera that success could obscure or disappointment could foreground.

Said Hill, "I think we’re going to be really good."

Winning solves a lot of problems, and Utah has a depth chart that appears capable of doing a lot of that in 2015.