By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: After running the table in 2008, the only program in the Football Bowl Subdivision to do so, the Utah Runnin' Utes had to deal with having a target on their backs right out of the gate in 2009. Head coach Kyle
Whittingham got off to a bit of a rocky start in the season opener against
Utah State, even though Utah eventually beat the Aggies by 18 points at home
in Rice-Eccles Stadium. The difficulty Utah had in the second half, scoring
just nine total points, had to be of concern to Whittingham, but he was able
to get his crew back into the win column nine days later with a 24-14 victory
versus San Jose State on the road. However, the nation's longest win streak
came to an end on September 19 when Oregon tallied a 31-24 triumph in Eugene a
week later, snapping Utah's 16-game run.
Earning the start at quarterback in the early going was junior college
transfer Terrance Cain, but as the season wore on Whittingham made the
decision to go with freshman Jordan Wynn as his favored signal-caller, putting
the youngster in the huddle in the final six games of the campaign. By the
time November rolled around, when Utah was showing a 7-1 record, Cain was all
but forgotten and had very little to do with the offense at all. Thanks to a
45-14 blowout of New Mexico at home in Salt Lake City on November 7 the Utes
had themselves back in contention for the league title, but still had both TCU
and BYU left on the schedule and that proved to be bad news for the squad. The
Horned Frogs welcomed Whittingham and his boys to Fort Worth with an ugly
55-28 beating and even though Utah was able to bounce back seven days later
with a 38-7 rout of San Diego State, the Utes still could not get back on
track before bowing to BYU in a heated in-state battle that went to the
Cougars by a 26-23 final in the regular-season finale. Earning a trip to the
Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego against California a couple days before
Christmas, the Utes extended the nation's longest active bowl win streak to
nine in a row with a 37-27 triumph as Wynn threw for 338 yards and three
With some of the indecision at quarterback during the season it was important
for the defense to step up for the Utes, and that's what the unit did by
ranking ninth in the nation in pass efficiency defense (100.42) and placing
19th in the country in total defense with 313.85 ypg allowed.
The latest update for the Utes is that this will also be their final season as
members of the MWC, having been accepted as the latest member of the Pac-10
Conference, which will be changing its name to the Pac-12 once Utah and
Colorado begin play next season.
OFFENSE: "It's a big advantage to know who your quarterback is and have guys
there who are experienced," coach Whittingham says of having Jordan Wynn ready
to lead the team on offense again in 2010. "It doesn't guarantee success, but
it's a great starting point...that should be a good nucleus from which to
Wynn, who is just a sophomore, will get special instruction from former MWC
Player of the Year Brian Johnson, who has been brought on to coach the
quarterbacks at his alma mater. Behind Terrance Cain on the depth chart last
year, Wynn was given plenty of opportunity to prove his worth to the Utes as
he connected on better than 58 percent of his pass attempts for eight
touchdowns and just four interceptions on 179 attempts.
The problem this time around is that leading receiver David Reed (81 catches,
1,188 yards, five touchdowns) is no longer an option heading down the field.
Instead, Jereme Brooks will get plenty more looks as he tries to build on his
56 receptions for seven TDs in 2009.
Even though he is the primary ball carrier for Utah, all-conference performer
Eddie Wide can also adapt and become the sort of player that Matt Asiata was
evolving into. But make no mistake, Wide is first and foremost a running back
who led the team with 1,069 yards and scored 12 TDs on the ground last season.
Allowed to play another year after petitioning the NCAA, Asiata has been
rehabbing his knee and should be ready to give the offense a hand and keep
defenses guessing with his spontaneous appearances at quarterback, ready and
willing to run the option.
DEFENSE: "Defensively, (we're) not as experienced, we only have four guys
coming back," coach Whittingham has said when comparing the returning starters
on defense with the eight who are coming back on offense. "You'll see a lot of
new faces, got some big shoes to fill with some defensive departures...but
that's the name of the game in college football, its all about transition."
With the Utah offense in some transition a year ago, it was the defense that
stepped up and made the group that much more competitive. The squad ranked
third in the conference and 16th nationally with just 176 ypg allowed through
the air, helping the team to grab 19th place in terms of overall defense
(313.8 ypg allowed). The problem now is that five of the top six tacklers from
a year ago have departed and that includes Robert Johnson who logged a team-
best six interceptions and also recovered a pair of fumbles.
The pass defense will be exposed more in 2010, considering all three
linebackers have to be replaced, as do a pair of backs in the secondary. The
additional loss of Nai Fotu to a season-ending injury during the spring didn't
help matters either. J.J. Williams, who previously had starting experience as
a linebacker before going on a mission trip, will hopefully be ready to take
on the challenge yet again.
Cut from the same mold as previous defensive backs at Utah who were eventually
picked up as NFL draft choices, Brandon Burton has the size and speed to
compete with the best receivers the Utes will see this year, but those are not
his only qualities.
"I just realized I have to be a more vocal leader," Burton said when asked
about the leadership he needs to provide with so little experience coming back
on the defensive side of the ball. "In the past I've kind of led by
example...and that's one of my goals in the upcoming season, to become a more
SPECIAL TEAMS: Up until last year the Utes had been spoiled, knowing that they
could always turn to Louie Sakoda to bail them out of a tough situation.
Sakoda spent four years handling the kicking duties and was a First Team All-
America as both a placekicker and punter, so last season the Utes knew they
were going to take a hit at those spots. However, Joe Phillips turned in a
fantastic effort as he made all but two of his 22 field goal attempts, leading
the Mountain West. The punting duties were handed over to Sean Sellwood in
2009 and he will again be taking care of the ball when Utah needs to pin teams
back in their own end of the field. Despite his name, Shaky Smithson will get
plenty more opportunities to return kicks for the Utes, with DeVonte
Christopher more than likely joining him during kickoffs.
OUTLOOK: With the recent success the Utes have enjoyed, their visibility has
certainly expanded far beyond the Mountain West and with that comes the
challenge of facing tougher non-conference opponents. While other schools in
the league are beating up on programs in the Football Championship Subdivision
in the opening weeks, Utah gets right after it with a date against Pittsburgh,
one of the marquee matchups during the first week of play. Bouts with UNLV,
New Mexico and San Jose State should provide a series of wins, as will dates
with Wyoming and Colorado State the second half of October. A bonus for the
Utes this year is that they catch both TCU and BYU in Salt Lake City and
having the hometown crowd to lean on is always a plus. The road date with
Notre Dame might have been a tough play if the Irish had the same roster as it
did a year ago, but now that's a winnable meeting and that means the Utes will
be putting their run of postseason wins on the line yet again come