- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's reloading time around the Pac-12. For some programs, the offseason challenge is more daunting than it is for others. Still, even Utah -- perhaps the league's most experienced team -- will be depending on multiple players to fill voids in 2015. The Utes continue our team-by-team look at talent that'll be called on to deliver key replacement production around the conference.
Finding receiving production
Utah did not feature a robust passing attack by any stretch of the imagination in 2014 (197.7 yards per game), and attrition since then hasn’t made the 2015 outlook any rosier. Receivers Kaelin Clay, Dres Anderson and Westlee Tonga -- the Utes’ three leaders in per-catch average last season -- are all gone. It looks as if prized junior college transfer Deniko Carter won’t academically qualify to provide a boost, so Utah enters 2015 with more questions than answers at wideout. Sixth-year man Kenneth Scott represents the one truly proven commodity -- his 48 catches led the team last season. Fellow senior Tim Patrick is also a familiar face. Freshmen Raelon Singleton and Tyrone Smith, both tall targets like Scott and Patrick, shined this spring.
Beyond those players, there may be replacement opportunities for speedy 5-foot-9 weapon Delshawn McClellon and running back convert Bubba Poole, who has made the shift over to the slot after Devontae Booker’s emergence as a bell cow in the backfield. The Utes also have a crop of true freshmen -- see Alfred Smith, George Wilson and Britain Covey -- who will look to provide depth. There’s even been some talk of touted junior college cornerback transfer Cory Butler taking offensive reps should the need arise.
Given the murkiness at receiver, it’s fair to expect the offense will run through Booker in more ways than one. He caught 43 passes for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season -- behind only Scott among Utah’s offensive returners.
"And it wasn't just screen passes," Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson observed.
It's safe to say Booker will again account for a solid share of the aerial attack as the Utes look to develop new targets downfield.
Retooling the defensive line
Nate Orchard, a bona fide monster last season, leaves a jaw-dropping statistical void: 84 tackles, 21 tackles for loss (123 TFL yards) and 18.5 sacks. The return of Hunter Dimick (14.5 TFL, 10 sacks) is the point of consolation for Utah here, but the front seven will miss Orchard’s propensity to slurp up double-teams and free rushing lanes elsewhere. The cupboard of talent, though, is far from bare: The Utes are expecting disruptive play from Lowell Lotulelei (Star’s brother) and Sese Ianu up front. Utah hopes this will pave the way for effectiveness from Dimick, Pita Taumoepenu (5.5 sacks), Jason Fanaika (9.5 TFL) and UCLA transfer Kylie Fitts.
The Utes led the nation in sacks (55) last season and amassed a staggering 325 yards of them -- more than three football fields’ worth. That’s an epic amount of damage and a testament not only to Orchard’s impact, but to the depth and strength of Utah’s entire front seven. There’s a very capable crop of replacements here.
Cornerback Eric Rowe (14 passes defended) and strong safety Brian Blechen (61 tackles) are the two starters gone here. Dominique Hatfield is the new leader in the secondary, while Reggie Porter is projected to start at the other cornerback position. Tevin Carter, Jason Thompson and Marcus Williams are competing to earn reps at safety, where Blechen's hard-hitting presence helped cement the Utes' physical reputation. Justin Thomas is a fixture at nickelback, while Butler -- rated the nation's No. 2 junior college cornerback prospect -- may also figure into Utah's replacement plans.
1dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller