Friday, May 20, 2011
Hope & concern: Utah
By ESPN.com staff
Every team has hope heading into the offseason. And every team has concerns.
Ergo, we're going to run through the conference and look at the chief matters -- on the up and downside -- for each Pac-12 team.
Biggest reason for hope: The program knows how to win.
The biggest preseason story for Utah's first go-round in the Pac-12 won't be about individual players or player groups. It will be about how well the Utes will do in their first experience competing in an AQ conference, where the depth of talent should be superior to the Mountain West. So forget about Utah's overall talent and positions of strength and concern for a moment, though the Utes' 31 NFL draft picks since 2000 speak for themselves. Utah is a well-coached team that has won 33 games over the past three years as well as two BCS bowl games since 2004. How many teams can match that? This is a confident program that won't be awed by Pac-12 membership. And for good reason: The Utes own bowl victories against Georgia Tech, Alabama, California and Pittsburgh in recent years. In the regular season, they've bounced Michigan, Oregon State, UCLA, Louisville, Arizona, Oregon and Texas A&M. My impression of the Utes during a spring visit is they mostly are amused by the notion they'll get humbled in Pac-12 play. They seemed genuinely baffled by the idea. That confidence borne of having done it before matters.
Biggest reason for concern: Is the secondary ready for a steady diet of NFL quarterbacks?
Utah faced some good quarterbacks last season: TCU's Andy Dalton, San Diego State's Ryan Lindley and Boise State's Kellen Moore. But that troika doesn't match the overall talent and sophistication the Utes will face in 2011, even though their schedule includes misses of Stanford and quarterback Andrew Luck and Oregon and quarterback Darron Thomas (at least, until a potential date in the Pac-12 title game). Toss in receivers such as Arizona's Juron Criner, USC's Robert Woods, Washington State's Marquess Wilson, Washington's Jermaine Kearse, California's Keenan Allen and Oregon State's James Rodgers (cross your fingers, Beavers fans), and the Utes' pass defense will be stressed this fall far beyond what it faced in 2010. Further, Utah is replacing all four starters from a secondary that ranked 88th in the nation in pass efficiency defense -- or ninth in the Pac-10. (Lindley completed 36 of 54 passes for a career-high 528 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-34 defeat to the Utes; Dalton completed 21 of 26 for 355 yards and three TDs in a 47-7 win; Moore was 28 of 38 for 339 yards and two TDs in a 26-3 win). The preliminary returns on the secondary from spring practices were hopeful: There's nice young talent across the board. But if you're looking for an area where the Utes will most feel an uptick in competition in the Pac-12, it's defending sophisticated passing games led by future NFL quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis.