Top 25 Team Previews
Top 25 Athlon Team Previews: Utah Utes
2009 Record: 10-3 (6-2 in MWC)
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham
Eddie Wide :: AP
at New Mexico
San Jose State
at Iowa State
at Air Force
at Notre Dame
at San Diego State
at San Jose State
at Colorado State
San Diego State
California (Poinsettia Bowl)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Eddie Wide, RB: He led all MWC rushers in league play in 2009, averaging 104.5 yards per game.
Caleb Schlauderaff, OL: He'll anchor a veteran offensive line from his guard spot.
Brandon Burton, CB: The solid corner will be the leading playmaker on a rebuilding defense.
Koa Misi, DE: The first-team All-MWC pass rusher was the Miami Dolphins' second-round draft pick.
Stevenson Sylvester, LB: The defensive MVP of the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl was Utah's leading tackler.
Robert Johnson, S: The playmaking safety had 13 career interceptions.
9.9: The Utes have averaged 9.9 wins over the past seven seasons and have won 10 games or more four times during that stretch.
Utah was 6-1 and sporting a top 20 ranking when coach Kyle Whittingham replaced his starting quarterback, deciding it was time to launch Jordan Wynn's career. The result was a head start on the 2010 season, which now begins with an established, more mature quarterback.
Wynn lost two of his five starts (to nationally ranked TCU and BYU), but became the Poinsettia Bowl MVP by passing for 338 yards in a victory over California. This year, more will be expected from him as the leader of an offense that ranked third in the Mountain West with a 389.5-yard average.
Wynn will operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters, led by guard Caleb Schlauderaff and center Zane Taylor. The Utes are loaded at running back, with Eddie Wide having gained most of his 1,069 yards in the last 10 games after Matt Asiata sustained a season-ending injury. Wide had a midseason stretch of 100-plus yards in six straight games, and he also posted 114 against BYU. Asiata, who was averaging 101 yards through three games, was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
Jereme Brooks is the top returning receiver with 56 catches, but no other returning wideout had more than 13 receptions. Shaky Smithson, who functioned more as a running back, should become a nice complement to Brooks.
Utah has barely involved tight ends in the passing game in recent years, but Kendrick Moeai showed a new dimension with two touchdown receptions in the Poinsettia Bowl.
A Utah defense known for its outstanding playmakers will have to be rebuilt without end Koa Misi, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester and safety Robert Johnson. Yet little dropoff is expected from a unit that ranked third in the conference in total defense, allowing 313.9 yards per game. Whittingham is concerned about inexperience in the secondary, but he is less worried about replacing all three starting linebackers.
Up front, Utah will remain solid with the return of Derrick Shelby, Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger, joined by junior college transfer James Aiono.
The linebacking corps took a hit when Nai Fotu was lost to a knee injury early in spring drills, but former quarterback Chad Manis and other players are capable of continuing Utah's strong tradition.
In the secondary, Brandon Burton and former nickelback Lamar Chapman are capable corners, playing in a high-pressure, man-to-man scheme that demands a lot of them.
The Utes wondered how they would ever replace All-America kicker/punter Louie Sakoda in 2009, but Joe Phillips and Sean Sellwood proved to be more than adequate. Phillips made 20-of-22 field goal attempts, including five against BYU. Sellwood averaged 42.9 yards per punt. Smithson is a dependable returner of both punts and kickoffs, and will be spelled by DeVonte Christopher.
After winning 10 games and extending their bowl streak to nine straight victories (over 12 years) in what some considered a rebuilding year, the Utes are confident they can contend for the Mountain West title in 2010. It helps that they get TCU and BYU at home, as they did during their unbeaten 2008 season.
Other than a difficult opener with Pittsburgh, a favorable schedule will give Utah's inexperienced receivers and secondary time to develop before taking on bigger challenges. By the time TCU comes to Salt Lake City in November, the Utes should be well positioned for the stretch run.