Pac-12: Justin Thomas

Spring breakout player: Utah

May, 21, 2014
May 21
This week, the Pac-12 blog will finish looking around the conference at several players who really stood out during spring ball. It’s only 15 practices, but it’s enough time to catch the eyes of coaches and gain momentum going into the season.

We continue the series with the Utah Utes.

Breakout player: RB Devontae Booker

2013 statistics: Booker signed with Utah in 2013, but did not play while he worked to qualify academically at American River College. In 2012, he rushed for 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns with nine catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns.

The case for Booker: The Utes had a few guys who impressed on both sides of the ball –- including wide receiver Dominique Hatfield, defensive back Justin Thomas and defensive lineman Jason Fanaika.

But the coaching staff couldn’t stop raving about what Booker brings to the table. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, he has the size to motor through people, but not so much size that he can’t run around folks, either.

For now, Bubba Poole is the starting running back. But Booker is right on his heels. In the Utah spring game, Booker rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. It’s obvious the coaching staff wanted a good look at him in game situations. And he responded.

With Poole, Troy McCormick and Booker, the Utes have a quality troika that could do some damage as the team adjusts to its third offensive coordinator in as many years. The Pac-12 blog specifically asked Kyle Whittingham about the running back situation and he said he’s not married to the idea of a single back. But rather a diversified by-committee backfield that he could use based on the down, distance and situation.

Booker’s emergence this spring gives Utah yet another option. Right now his greatest shortfall is conditioning. But Whittingham said once he gets into the kind of shape they’d like to see, he believes Booker has the potential to be a standout Pac-12 back.

Booker has two years of eligibility remaining.

Other spring breakout players:

Arizona: WR Cayleb Jones
Arizona State: LB D.J. Calhoun
Cal: RB Daniel Lasco
Colorado: WR Bryce Bobo
Oregon: WR Devon Allen
Oregon State: WR Victor Bolden
Stanford: DL Aziz Shittu
UCLA: CB Fabian Moreau
USC: WR Nelson Agholor

Utah spring wrap

May, 2, 2014
May 2
Three things we learned in the spring
  1. O-line depth: While no coach is ever satisfied with depth on the offensive line, the Utes staff is feeling pretty good about the current setup. The left side has solid experience with Jeremiah Poutasi and Junior Salt and junior Siaosi Aiono, a former tackle, brings some experience in the middle. There are multiple options on the right side.
  2. Ground control: Right now it looks like Bubba Poole survived a push from Devontae Booker and is still the “starting” running back. But Booker impressed the coaching staff, and there’s depth behind him with Troy McCormick. Some good options for Utah to build on last year's 160.3 rushing yards per game.
  3. Improved secondary: The Utes had the second to worst turnover ratio in the league last year, which included a league-low three interceptions. But the staff feels good with Brian Blechen back at strong safety and some competition at the corner spots with Davion Orphey and Eric Rowe on one side and Justin Thomas at nickel.
Three questions for the fall
  1. LB depth: The Utes had a run of injuries to starters and key reserves, which signals an alarm that depth could be an issue heading into the fall and beyond. For now, it looks like Uaea Masina, Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris hold down the top three spots.
  2. WR questions: Dres Anderson, the leading receiver last year with 53 catches for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns, is back at one spot. But there’s some competition continuing for the other two spots between Delshawn McClellon and Kaelin Clay at one position and Kenneth Scott and Dominique Hatfield at the other.
  3. Many happy returns: While it looks like Geoff Norwood is slated to handle the punt returns, he might have to split some time with Poole. Norwood is also in the mix with Hatfield for kickoff return duties, but that probably won’t get worked out until practice resumes in the fall.
One way-too-early prediction: Travis Wilson will play and the Utes will make it to the postseason. Craziness, right? The big nonconference game this year is at Michigan, a program with a big name but not very big results the last couple of years. Kyle Whittingham had the upper hand on Brady Hoke when he was in the Mountain West. The Utes broke through with a win over Stanford and almost knocked off UCLA and ASU. It’s not out of the question to imagine them winning six games and getting back to the postseason -- especially with a healthy Wilson at QB.