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Patrick Kinahan: BYU, Utah have own set of concerns

Patrick Kinahan: BYU, Utah have own set of concerns

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News, File)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Expectations are high, much like for most teams this time of year, as the BYU and Utah football programs begin practice this week.

The guess here is only one of these two teams will end up satisfied come December. Following is a look at some of the questions surrounding each of them:

BYU

Under second-year coach Kalani Sitake and his energetic staff, the Cougars haven’t been this optimistic since Max Hall was the starting quarterback going into the 2009 season. Not coincidentally, Hall’s senior year was the last time BYU beat the Utes.

BYU fans scattered around the country believe the personable Sitake and his group are the ingredients to restore the program to national prominence. While the task has never been greater, given the degree of difficulty with each September schedule as an independent, the Cougars should have enough talent to provide plenty of highlights.

The two most pressing issues are at running back and receiver. Most of it is unproven, but BYU believes there is enough talent at both positions.

Even with a bevy of options, the Cougars cannot individually replace Jamaal Williams. The program’s all-time leading rusher defined the essence of the program as a gritty player with an unmatched determination. No player has had a bigger impact on the program since it left the Mountain West Conference to become an independent seven years ago.

The good thing is the Cougars won’t need a Williams-like performance out of the running backs. With Tanner Mangum replacing run-first Taysom Hill at quarterback, the BYU offense will rely more on the passing game.

Mangum wants no part of playing college football next season. His objective, which is correct and widely known within the program, is to show well enough this year to springboard into the NFL.

It won’t take long for the junior from Idaho to shake off the rust he accumulated through standing on the sidelines much of last season after playing well as a freshman. He is a proven product with an improved mindset going into this season.

BYU’s issue is at the back end of Mangum’s passes. Much like at running back, the Cougars have mostly potential but no proven returners. Certainly, there is no identifiable go-to receiver. At least one of the several candidates, which finally include tight ends, must prove worthy of Mangum’s trust.

Defensively, BYU looks solid — maybe the best it’s had in several years. The Cougars need to find depth across the frontline and a replacement for ball-hawking safety Kai Nacua.

Utah

The Utes appear to have question marks all over the field, extending to the sidelines. That’s what happens when so much talent moves on to the NFL — eight players were drafted and seven signed free-agent contracts — and another offensive coordinator in Troy Taylor takes over.

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As coach Kyle Whittingham has said repeatedly since joining the Pac-12, recruiting has improved markedly each year. Given the heavy losses from last year, this season will be the biggest test for the infusion of talent.

Utah has to replace significant chunks of talent on both sides of the ball. The Utes lose four starters along the offensive line and four defensive backs, all of whom are in NFL camps this month. The same goes for running back Joe Williams.

But somehow, the Utes always seem to reload with another group of unheralded players that Whittingham and his staff develop into NFL prospects, particularly in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Undoubtedly, they will do again — the only question is when it will happen.

Pac-12 media members believe Utah’s talent will mature quickly. The Utes were picked second in the South Division in the poll released Wednesday.

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