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SALT LAKE CITY -- The 2009 Utes are faced with the daunting task of replacing the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year at quarterback, three starting receivers, the starting running back and two starting offensive linemen. Oh, and the offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach. And that's just on offense.
The Utes faced a similar situation in 2005, the year after Utah crashed the BCS for the first time. Utah had to replace their starting quarterback, running back and a cast of talented wide receivers. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford left to be the head coach at UNLV, while Kyle Whittingham was promoted to be the new head coach at Utah.
Following their Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig left for a similar position at Cal while defensive coordinator Gary Andersen took the head coaching job at Utah State. The one crucial difference between 2005 and 2009? Utah doesn't have to replace their head coach.
Strengths: Running backs, Receivers, Offensive Line
Can the Utes replace Sugar Bowl MVP Brian Johnson at quarterback? With Corbin Louks bolting for Nevada, the Utes have no game experience at the FBS level. Terrance Cain was the leading JC passer last season (3,138 yards, 29 TDs). Jordan Wynn, who graduated early from high school, was the biggest surprise of spring ball. A prospect to redshirt, he exited spring practice as a potential starter.
The big positive out of the quarterback battle between Cain and Wynn is that both of them are suited to run Utah's spread offense. The negative? They have no Division 1 experience.
The running game should be solid, with Matt Asiata taking the majority of the carries. Eddie Wide and Sausan Shakerin will provide depth at the position. Ute fans have been eagerly awaiting the debut of "Shak", the 2007 Utah state high school 5A MVP, who is also Utah's biggest (6-2, 225) and fastest (4.49 40) running back.
While the Utes lost seniors Freddie Brown, Brent Casteel and Bradon Godfrey, they look to have even more talent at wide receiver this year. David Reed leads the pack, who made big play after big play last year, averaging a team high 17.1 yards per catch. Aiona Key, Jereme Brooks and Luke Matthews will be the starters, but expect to see DeVonte Christopher, Ryan Lacy, Shaky Smithson, John Peel and Elijah Wesson all get playing time.
The offensive line is anchored by All-America candidate Zane Beadles. Beadles will play alongside two all-conference candidates, juniors Caleb Schlauderaff and Zane Taylor.
Strengths: Linebackers, Defensive Line, Safeties
Gone are defensive coordinator Gary Andersen and NFL draft picks Paul Kruger, Sean Smith and Brice McCain. So how can I say that the Utes will actually be better on defense this year?
First off, the most important piece, Utah's defensive scheme, remains intact. After Andersen's departure, Head Coach Kyle Whittingham promoted linebackers coach Kalani Sitake to defensive coordinator. Sitake has a firm understanding of the defensive philosophy and he played an important role of the Utes' game planning and play calling when he was a position coach.
Linebackers will be the core of the defense this year. All three starters from last season return, including team captain and leader Stevenson Sylvester, known for his monstrous play in Utah's Sugar Bowl victory.
The coaching staff will miss having Paul Kruger on the defensive line, especially after Koa Misi went down in fall camp with an injury. Luckily for the Utes, Misi's injury wasn't as bad as originally diagnosed and he should be back in the lineup by game 2, if not against Utah State in the season opener. The Utes will be glad to have tackles Kenape Eliapo and Lei Talamaivao back, who sat out most of last year due to injury.
The big question mark on defense is at the cornerback position. R.J. Stanford and Brandon Burton are listed as starters. Outside of those two, the Utes have little returning experience at that position.
Returning safeties Robert Johnson and Joe Dale will be the strength of the secondary. The agile 6'2" Johnson has seven interceptions in his first two seasons as the starting free safety.
Special Teams Outlook
Strengths: Kickoff Returns, Kickoffs
Questions: Place Kicker, Punter, Punt Returns
For the first time in Whittingham's head coaching career, the Utes enter a season without the services of sensational kicker/punter Louie Sakoda. Ben Vroman showed significant improvement through camp and will be the starting kicker for the Utes, while incoming freshman Sean Sellwood will handle the punting.
The key will be to get Vroman confidence early on in the season. If he can get a long field goal attempt against Oregon on the road and make it, it could propel him for the rest of the season.
Freshman Luke Matthews will be the punt returner, a position that the Utes had difficulty with last season. In one game last season the Utes fumbled three punts.
If the Utes had to play a quarterback with no Division 1 experience, this would be the season to do it. The Utes open up at home against Utah State, and while the game has a nice storyline with former defensive coordinator Gary Andersen leading the Aggies, this is a game the Utes should win.
The Utes then travel to San Jose State, a WAC team that plays USC the week before. However, it will be the first road test for Utah's starting quarterback.
Things get increasingly difficult as they travel up the Pacific Coast to Eugene to play Oregon. While the Utes have played very well against PAC-10 teams in Salt Lake City, things haven't gone quite as well on the road. The last time Utah won on the road against a PAC-10 team was back in 2004 when the Utes defeated Arizona 23-6. This season could be different; we should get a pretty good indication of how this game will play out after watching the Utes' first two games.
The Utes return home to play Louisville on September 26. Like I said before, Utah plays very well against BCS teams in Salt Lake City, with the last loss coming against Washington State all the way back in 2000.
Conference play then begins, with road trips to Colorado State and UNLV. Both are programs that are on the rise, with CSU having the biggest turnaround in the MWC and UNLV is hoping this is the year they make it to a bowl game.
The Utes then have three home games in a row against Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico. The Cowboys and Lobos will have new coaches this year, while the Falcons always prove to be a tough match up for the Utes.
The most difficult portion of play begins in November, with the Utes playing at TCU and at BYU, with a home game against San Diego State sandwiched in between. Optimistically, whichever quarterback the Utes choose will have plenty of experience by this late in the season. The Utes are 5-1 in games against the Horned Frogs. The Utah-BYU rivalry is always a toss up.
The Utes made a big splash in the football world in 2008, but are the expectations now too high for this season? I don't think so. The Utes return a lot of talent from last year's undefeated team, but even more importantly, Kyle Whittingham has matured and developed into one of the top coaches in the country.
While an undefeated season might be a little too overly optimistic with a brand new quarterback and two new coordinators, I don't see any reason why the Utes wouldn't be in the hunt for a conference championship this season.