Utah wants to prove it has staying power in Pac-12
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah is out to show it's not a one-year wonder.
The Utes opened preseason practice Thursday coming off a 9-4 season, a Top 25 ranking and their first winning Pac-12 record since joining the league in 2011.
Old perceptions of the program die hard, though. The media picked Utah fifth in the Pac-12 South again this season.
''Ever since we've basically been in the Pac-12, people have looked at Utah as the underdog,'' junior cornerback Brian Allen said. ''We take that as motivation. Last year, I feel like we proved everybody wrong beating the so-called powerhouse UCLAs, USCs and Stanfords. We proved we can play in this conference with everybody.''
The Utes return 17 starters on offense, defense and special teams. Several key players lost to season-ending injuries in 2014 - safety Tevin Carter, linebacker Gionni Paul, quarterback Kendall Thompson and receiver Tim Patrick - are full strength and participated in drills in the first practice.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he likes the energy and focus he's seeing from his team, which opens Sept. 3 at home against Michigan.
''This is a very confident team overall,'' Whittingham said. ''They were confident all last season. We got, in essence, the same group back.''
Offense remains a question mark. The Utes are breaking in new offensive coordinators again, with Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding sharing duties after Dave Christensen left for Texas A&M. Travis Wilson was named No. 1 quarterback entering practice, but his grip on the job is tenuous with both Thompson and redshirt freshman Chase Hansen pushing him.
Utah should have a potent ground game. Devontae Booker is back after averaging 5.2 yards a carry while running for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. He earned first-team all-conference honors last season and is a Heisman Trophy hopeful.
Beyond his goal of rushing for 2,000 yards, Booker also wants to help prove Utah is as good as any other team in the Pac-12.
''It's just adding fuel to the fire again,'' Booker said. ''Last year, we were picked at the same (spot), so it's definitely motivating us and just adding more fuel on the fire for us to go out there and kick some butt.''
The job will become a little easier for Booker and the offense if some of the new receivers can make an impact. Converted running back Bubba Poole and junior-college transfer defensive back Cory Butler have both been moved over to that group to shore up depth and take pressure off the running game.
''That was actually my main focus when I came up here - to give them something other than Booker,'' Butler said. ''The receivers last year were great. They gave him a hand. But I feel like this year we've got to do pretty good and take more of a load off of him.''