- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Many Utah fans are grumpy after consecutive losing campaigns. After the Utes won 33 games over their final three seasons in the Mountain West Conference, they have won 18 in their first three in the Pac-12. Some Utah fans blame coach Kyle Whittingham for not making the transition to the big leagues less bumpy.
Whittingham isn't happy sitting home during the bowl season either, and he's aware of the harrumphs. But after concluding spring practices last weekend and officially beginning the offseason, he's tuning out his critics.
"I don't pay any attention to that," he said. "We're working as hard as we can trying to improve every year. The external things, I don't pay any attention to them."
What he is paying attention to is the quarterback position. If the Utes can square that away satisfactorily, they could become a player in the Pac-12 South race. While the Pac-12 certainly has presented a greater uptick in competition that most Utes adherents -- coaches, fans and players -- thought it would, it's important to note a significant difference between the 2008-2010 seasons and 2011-2013 seasons: Continuity and productivity behind center.
Dave Christensen -- the Utes sixth different play caller in six years -- was hired to bring his up-tempo version of the spread offense to Salt Lake, and the first order of business is to figure out who will be directing the show. If all goes according to plan, which it hasn't for three years running, that will junior Travis Wilson.
Wilson, whose career appeared threatened after a season-ending intracranial artery injury in November, showed some early rust but by the end of the spring drills he put some separation between himself and Conner Manning and Adam Schulz. He will take the first snaps behind center when fall camp begins.
"As spring wore on, he got better and he started to play more like he did in the fall for us," Whittingham said. "No tentativeness whatsoever. He wasn't apprehensive about anything we were doing. He looked like his old self by the end of spring ball."
Of course, there's an asterisk with Wilson. Whittingham and Christensen won't know if he will be cleared to resume full-contact football until July. So Manning, Schulz, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson and incoming freshman Donovan Isom could end up being plan B. In fact, some fans are clicking their heels together over Thompson, a redshirt junior who went 4-of-13 with a touchdown and an interception in three seasons at Oklahoma. Those fans might want to revisit our observations on "Incoming Dude Is Obviously Transcendent" (IDIOT) syndrome.
Whatever Wilson's status, Whittingham makes it clear that nothing is resolved at the position.
"[Wilson is] No. 1 guy going into fall," he said. "But there still will be some competition, some jockeying for position, I guess you could say. But we've got to get solidified there rapidly once fall camp starts so we can rep the guys who are the ones and twos on the depth chart."
QB is still at issue, and the knee injury to play-making LB Jacoby Hale was a drag, but Whittingham was upbeat about several areas this spring.
For one, talented OT Jeremiah Poutasi, after cutting about 30 pounds, appears poised for the breakthrough many projected for him last season.
"He is playing at the level that we were hoping he was going to play at last year," Whittingham said.
The depth at running back is strong with the emergence of Devontae Booker and Troy McCormick beside Bubba Poole, with the injured Lucky Radley rejoining the fray in the fall. Dominique Hatfield emerged as a potential No. 3 receiver, at least until touted junior college transfer Kaelin Clay arrives. Westlee Tonga, injured much of last season, gives the Utes an A-list tight end.
On defense, Whittingham was pleased with the development of depth at cornerback, and he believes Nate Orchard is ready for his closeup as a pass rusher. Further, if all goes according to plan with a couple of incoming players, including the arrival of touted JC transfer Pasoni Tasini, the competition should be fierce at defensive tackle.
While getting things squared away behind center is priority one, Whittingham also is quick to answer when asked what needs to change this fall for his team to get back to its winning ways: Turnovers. Both giveaways and takeaways. The Utes had too many of the former and too few of the latter in 2013.
Utah, which led the Pac-12 in turnover margin while going 8-5 in 2011 despite complete chaos behind center, ranked 11th in the conference in turnover margin last fall. They were minus-9 for the season in large part because they tossed 21 interceptions while grabbing only three picks. That was by far the highest interception percentage in the conference and tied for the fewest interceptions in the nation on defense.
So Whittingham isn't focused on his critics as he turns his attention to the offseason. He's focused on his QB situation and improving his team's turnover margin.
Here's a guess that if he solves both of those issues he'll have a lot less grumpiness to ignore.
2dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller