- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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With spring ball just a couple of weeks away, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham enters camp coming off a losing season for the first time in his head-coaching career. He took a few minutes to chat with the Pac-12 blog about the expectations, plugging holes and his unshaken faith in co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. And he gave a clear, unbiased endorsement of Reggie Dunn in the Pac-12 Postseason Top 25.
2012 was your first losing season as a head coach. How trying was that for you?
Kyle Whittingham: Very trying. It's not what we're used to around here, for sure. But it's a transitional period for us. We're in a very good league, a very competitive league. We feel like we're making progress, but everyone is as well. Everyone is a moving target. Nobody is standing still. I think the league took a big step forward last year. Last year there was a lot of improvement by a lot of the teams.
What were some of the lessons learned from going through last season?
KW: I don't know if it's anything we didn't know. We had some quarterback issues. Jordan [Wynn] got hurt and we went through a few quarterbacks which didn't give us any stability at that position until the second half of the season. We're excited about Travis Wilson. We think he's got a lot of upside and we're really excited about the three quarterbacks we recruited this year. That position is in better shape now than it's been in for a long time.
So you're committed to Travis. Or is there any competition there?
KW: There's always competition. Right now Travis is the guy with experience and he's been in the program for a year. But the freshmen we brought in are very talented. The best guys play here. It doesn't matter if you've been here five days or five years. If you're the best guy you're going to play.
What were your thoughts on offensive coordinator Brian Johnson's first year? Given some of the difficulties he had to face -- the revolving quarterbacks, injuries, offensive line holes -- do you feel like he did a sufficient job in his first year?
KW: I think so. He's got a lot of upside. I remember as a first-year coordinator there was a big learning curve. I don't care how intelligent you may be or how ready you feel for the job, there is still a learning curve that is going to take place. And until you've been in that chair you don't really appreciate all that it entails and everything the job encompasses. I think coach [Dennis] Erickson is going to be working side-by-side with Brian -- they will be co-coordinators -- I think that will be a great situation for us. Bottom line, Coach Erickson was brought in to make our offense better and get our offense rolling. My faith in Brian Johnson is still very strong.
Everyone in the league has players, but depth seems to be a big issue for most teams. Entering Year 3 in the Pac-12, do you feel like you've built up that depth to where you can be competitive?
KW: I think we're working toward that end. It's a process. It doesn't happen overnight. Every year you try to make your football team better through recruiting. There are three ways to make yourself better. You either bring in new players through recruiting. You make the guys already in the program better and sometimes it's addition by subtraction. Those are the three ways you can improve your football team. And I think we have done a very nice job -- the assistant coaches in particular -- they are the ones on the front lines of recruiting and finding the talent and determining who we should bring into the program. I'm pleased with the classes we've put together the last three years. I believe we're heading in that direction of building depth. We're certainly a more talented team than we were a few years ago.
Speaking of depth, you have some holes to fill on the defensive line. Will Trevor Reilly switch from his hybrid spot to full-time defensive end?
KW: That question has not been completely answered. We have to see how some of the young defensive ends that are in the program develop this spring and through fall camp. With the departure of Joe Kruger -- unexpectedly -- that took us by surprise when he left early for the NFL, that created a void at that position that we weren't expecting. In our minds that became a situation where we thought Trevor might spend more time there than he had if Joe had returned. But it's still not completely defined as to what his role will be. He won't be with us for spring ball. He had offseason surgery so he won't be with us through spring so that probably won't be answered until fall.
Junior Salt was recruited as a defensive lineman, but then you moved him to the offensive line. Any thoughts on moving him back to fill some of those holes on the defensive line?
KW: No. We feel really good about him at the guard position. That's where he played his junior college ball and we think he's going to be a really good offensive lineman for us and we believe that's where he belongs and where his greatest contribution to our football team will be. When he got here, he was playing on the D-line and then he broke his foot. That kept him out a long time -- eight or nine weeks. Toward the end of that, I talked to him and told him he can play on either side he prefers. But after looking at who was departing, we thought he had a chance to step in and take over that right guard spot and he was very agreeable to that.
Obviously a frustrating situation with Star Lotulelei. Have you talked with him at all?
KW: He's doing OK. I'm not a doctor so I can't speak to the medical end of it. But I know he has a good attitude and things can get cleared up. His health is the most important thing. If we can get some more evaluations and tests and get this thing completely answered, that's what we're trying to do right now. As a program and as Star's former coach, the main thing is making sure his health is OK. Once that's addressed, hopefully he'll be able to play in the NFL.
I know you hang on every word written in the Pac-12 blog so you no doubt saw Reggie Dunn on our list of Top 25 players in 2012. Any thoughts?
KW: He deserved it. He set some records that aren't going to be broken for a long time. I think the world of Reggie. Boy, the spark he provided for us this year -- particularly with our offense struggling -- what he brought was huge for us.