Defense is king up on the Hill.
Utah’s defense – and to a large extent, special teams – has carried the Utes the past several seasons. Last year the Utes finished 10-3 with an offense that often struggled to move the ball, especially after an injury sidelined running back Devontae Booker.
Inconsistent quarterbacking by Travis Wilson and an ineffective group of receivers – other than freshman Britain Covey – is what kept Utah from an even bigger finish than holding on for a 35-28 win against rival BYU in the Las Vegas.
The Utes figure to be pretty good defensively again in 2016 and the focus will be finding a way for the offense find the end zone more often.
Wilson, a four-year starter, has graduated and the quarterback spot is up for grabs between dual-threat JC transfer Troy Williams, junior Brandon Cox and freshman Tyler Huntley.
“They'll have an open competition and it starts as soon as the first day of fall camp begins,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “There are two things: Who's going to give us the best chance to win immediately, and who's going to give us the best chance to win, ultimately? That's something as coaches that we've got to have a way out of the equation and then do the evaluation.”
Booker is with the Denver Broncos this fall, so in the run game Utah will turn to junior Joe Williams, who ran for 447 yards last season.
Covey is serving an LDS mission so the Utes are hoping for someone to step up as a receiver. A strong returning group of offensive linemen should make life easier for Williams and whoever ends up starting at quarterback.
“I feel very strong about our play at the line of scrimmage, both sides, offensive and defensive line,” Whittingham said. “We expect to be among the best in the Pac-12. It's a good starting point. If you want to have a good football team, it's obviously important to be good up front.”
Utah’s defensive line, led by senior ends Kylie Fitts and Hunter Dimick as well as junior tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Fillipo Mokofisi, is one of the top returning groups in the country. The Utes will have to rebuild its linebacking corps but the secondary, with cornerback Dominique Hatfield leading the way, should be solid.
Kicker Andy Phillips will be a strength but Utah must replace punter Tom Hackett, an effective weapon when the offense couldn’t move the sticks.
The Utes, picked to finish third in the Pac 12 South Division, opens at home against Southern Utah on Sept. 1.
“We’ve been in the league five years now,” Whittingham said. “We feel we're starting to get some traction. We ended up 10-3 last year so I thought we took another step forward. We know we're in a lot better place right now than we were when we entered the league as far as playing field and being able to compete and have some success in the Pac-12 Conference.”
Utah will face BYU in the regular season for the first time since 2013 on Sept. 10 in Salt Lake City.
“They're on the schedule this year and next year, and at my age, beyond that, it really doesn't matter,” Whittingham told reporters at Pac 12 Media Day.