Utah Utes football: Most Important player, breakout star, newcomers to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 18, 2017 at 6:21 PM
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Times have changed in recent years for Utah football in more ways than one.

Kyle Whittingham, on the hot seat only a few years ago, begins his 15th season as Utah's head coach in a much more comfortable position, having won 28 games in the past three seasons. The Utes had just 18 victories in the previous three years.

Whittingham, 57, is not so stubborn as to stick with the run-first principles of the past. He let go of Aaron Roderick, Utah's play-caller for the past two years and an assistant for 12 years, to hire Troy Taylor as offensive coordinator. Taylor was the offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington, known for its up-tempo system with a lot of passing.

The reason for change: Utah's anemic passing game. The Utes have finished ninth or lower in passing yards in the Pac-12 every year since joining the conference in 2011.

"It's a situation where we were getting close -- we were really close -- to reaching our goal of trying to win a Pac-12 championship," said Whittingham, whose team has gone 9-4, 10-3 and 9-4 in the last three years without a Southern Division title.

"We gotta improve throwing the football. That's really what Troy Taylor brings to the table: a history of prolific offenses, as well as quarterback tutoring and grooming. We just felt like that's what our needs were."

Utah still figures to have a solid running game despite the loss of Joe Williams, who came out of a brief retirement last season to help the injury-ravaged Utes at that position. Zack Moss takes over as the lead back, somewhat by default after Armand Shyne suffered an injury during camp. Utah also has Devonta'e Henry-Cole, and the coaches moved Troy McCormick back from slot receiver to add depth.

A big question is at quarterback. Whittingham and Taylor did not anoint returning starter Troy Williams, a senior, as the No. 1 player at that position. He is competing in fall camp with sophomore Tyler Huntley.

Utah's usually strong defense is bolstered by experience on the line with future NFL players Lowell Lotulelei at tackle and Kylie Fitts on the end. Bradlee Anae and Filipo Mokofisi bolster one of the Pac-12's best defensive fronts, which will take the pressure off the reloading that's going on with the linebackers and secondary.

The schedule is difficult one. Utah must play at BYU, USC, Oregon, and Washington. The Utes will probably be the underdog against the Trojans, Ducks and Huskies on the road, making it difficult to get that elusive Pac-12 South title and a chance to play for the conference title.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER:

DT Lowell Lotulelei -- Utah's defensive front lost standouts Hunter Dimick, Pasoni Tasini and Pita Taumoepenu (all exhausted their eligibility), which puts the onus on Lotulelei to play up to his NFL capability in the interior of the line. Lotulelei went from a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2015 to honorable mention last season despite a good year with 8.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks. His presence will help set the tone for a defense that has some inexperience at linebacker and the secondary. He is durable, with 30 starts in 38 games since his true freshman season, missing only one game.

BREAKOUT STAR:

LB Kavika Luafatasaga -- Highly recruited out of junior college, he showed his promise in the final two games of last season against Colorado and Indiana by registering 22 tackles and four tackles for loss with a forced fumble. He had only one tackle for loss in the previous 11 games. One of the senior leaders of the defense, Luafatasaga played in all 13 games with eight starts at stud linebacker last season.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH:

WR Darren Carrington II -- The graduate transfer from Oregon has performed very well in fall camp. He was dismissed by the Ducks after being charged with a DUI in July. He played 33 games with Oregon, catching 112 passes for 1,919 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had 43 receptions for 606 yards and five touchdowns last season. "He's got the frame," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder. "He's got great ability to go up and get the contested ball. He's got exceptional hands, runs very clean routes. He's got great body control. He's a guy that fits very well into (new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor's) plans."

--FS Chase Hansen is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury. The lone returning starter of Utah's secondary, Hansen started all 13 games last season. Utah does not disclose information about injuries unless they are season-ending.

--RB Armand Shyne was injured early in fall camp and will be "out a long time," coach Kyle Whittingham said. Shyne, whose injury is undisclosed, was battling RB Zack Moss for a starting role.

Topics: Joe Williams
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