by Bruce Marshall. Goldsheet.com Editor

Timing is everything. We’ve all heard that saying a thousand or so times. And no one has to remind the University of Utah and its football program about that old adage which played out in December of 2004, when decisions within a very short period of time would impact the direction of the Ute football program for much of the next decade, into this fall’s 2012 campaign.

Of course, the autumn of 2004 was a heady time in Salt Lake City, with Utah roaring through an unbeaten season in the Mountain West under bright star HC Urban Meyer and prolific QB Alex Smith. That Meyer would soon be moving to greener coaching pastures was considered a fait accompli that year; where Utah would eventually look next for a successor to Meyer was a hot topic in the foothills of the Wasatch Range.

Perhaps the highest-profile assistant on the Ute staff at that time was offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who oversaw the exciting strike force that would make QB Smith the top pick by the 49ers in the upcoming NFL Draft. Sanford was indeed the coaching flavor of the month in those days, and itching for a chance to lead a program, wherever that might be.

For Sanford (right), wherever turned out to be UNLV; before Meyer would announce his eventual plans following an undefeated regular season, Sanford jumped at the opportunity offered in late November by the Runnin’ Rebels, who were seeking a new coach to replace John Robinson.

Meyer would become involved a few weeks later in a tug-of-war between Notre Dame, where he had once served as an assistant, and Florida, where former Utah school president Bernie Machen had moved. Before the Fiesta Bowl game vs. Pittsburgh, Meyer surprised several onlookers by opting for the assignment in Gainesville, where he would take over the Gators after the bowl game.

Meanwhile, with Sanford already having accepted the job at UNLV, Utah sought to find Meyer’s successor and focused its efforts upon defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, who also happened to be a BYU alum and at the top of the candidate list in Provo. Where, as luck would have it, the Cougars were also looking for a new coach at the same time after dismissing Gary Crowton.

Whittingham weighed his options for several agonizing days in late December before deciding to stay in Salt Lake City and accept the promotion to the head coaching role with the Utes, rather than move 45 or so miles south to his alma mater.

Seven years later, all seems to have worked well, at least for Utah and BYU. Whittingham has won consistently with the Utes, and the Cougars have done the same with the coach they hired after being spurned by Whittingham, Bronco Mendenhall.

As for Mike Sanford? Not as well for him, as he couldn’t revive the UNLV program and was subsequently dismissed after the 2009 season, failing to record a winning record in five campaigns. Subsequently, Sanford was fired as Louisville’s offensive coordinator; he now works as an assistant at Utah State.

What might have happened, and how would history have changed, had developments unfolded in a slightly different order over those few weeks late in 2004, and Sanford been the one hired by Utah instead of Whittingham?

It’s a fair question to ask...but it’s also meaningless. Instead, it’s just another example of timing being everything.

And Utah has certainly reaped the benefits of Whittingham’s presence with almost-uninterrupted success since the Meyer years. The Whittingham Utes, as they were under Meyer, have been a consistent conference contender, bowl participant, and occasional factor in the national title race, winning 73% of their games (66-25) since 2005, even reaching the BCS with an unbeaten team in 2008 (much as Meyer did in 2004) and winning the Sugar Bowl over Alabama.

Along the way the athletic program hit the jackpot with a move away from the Mountain West into the high-rent district of the Pac-12 a year ago. Utah’s gridiron success in the Whittingham years wasn’t the only factor in the Pac’s courtship of the Utes, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Utah’s much-anticipated move into the Pac-12 last season, however, had almost as many bumps as alum Jon Hunstman’s recent presidential campaign. A legitimate chance to upset Southern Cal in the second game boomeranged on a last-second blocked field goal attempt. QB Jordan Wynn, whose previous shoulder ailments had forced him into a sidearmed throwing motion not too dissimilar from the “submarine” delivery of former major league pitchers such as Ted Abernathy and Kent Tekulve, was eventually KO’d by another shoulder injury (this time to his left, non-throwing arm) in the fourth game vs. Washington.

Various other injuries hampered the Utes until they steadied in late October and embarked upon a 4-game win streak that had them poised to represent the South Division in the inaugural Pac-12 title game until getting shocked by 22-point underdog Colorado, 17-14, in the regular-season finale before a stunned home audience at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Repeating the injury theme of the campaign, Utah’s prolific RB John White IV was KO’d by an ankle injury during that shocker.

The Utes did display admirable resilience, however, by rallying for an exciting 30-27 overtime win vs. Georgia Tech in El Paso’s Sun Bowl, Utah’s tenth bowl win in eleven tries since 1999, and Whittingham’s sixth postseason success in seven attempts since assuming the head coaching reins.

With a now-healthy QB Wynn and workhorse RB White still in the fold, and many of the key components returning on the defensive side, Utah is thinking that 2012 might be a real coming-out party in its second season of a new conference affiliation.

We’d recommend cautious optimism instead.

The history of shoulder ailments for the RS-jr. Wynn (left) are more than a bit disturbing. Despite bulking up in the offseason to supposedly better handle the expected wear-and-tear, Wynn’s passes wobbled like wounded ducks last September before he injured his non-throwing shoulder. Shoulder ailments, like the one Wynn suffered on the right (throwing) side the year before, are bad news for those whose job it is to throw a ball, whether in football or baseball.

If healthy, Wynn, who has passed for 4390 yards and 31 TDs since breaking into the starting lineup in 2009, can be a positive force. But we need more evidence than the last time we saw him in action last September that Wynn is as good as new this fall.

Concerns for Whittingham and new o.c. Brian Johnson (a former Ute QB for the unbeaten 2008 team who replaces sage Norm Chow, now Hawaii’s HC) also revolve around the forward wall, which lost both of its decorated bookend tackles (Tony Bergstom, a 3rd-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, and John Cullen, spending summer in the New York Jets camp) whom Whittingham considered as the Pac-12's best. Even with Bergstom and Cullen, the Utes ranked a poor 95th in sacks allowed in 2011. A redshirt frosh, Daniel Nielsen, is expected to handle the RT spot, although a couple of juco behemoths (335-lb. Marc Poumave and 385-lb. Carlos Lozano) could enter the pitcture in fall.

The progress of the new bookends will be critical in keeping Wynn well-protected in the pocket. Adding an extra 10-15 pounds does not erase Wynn’s history of fragility.

The OL does have an experienced anchor in the middle in 302-lb. sr. C Tevita Stevens, and Whittingham likes the fact that the new line has a jumbo-sized look, with all projected starters north of 300 pounds. If nothing else, the training table figures to be an interesting place when the big uglies show up for a meal.

Wynn does have an experienced backup QB in former juco Jon Hays, who passed for 1459 yards and 12 TDs out of the bullpen last fall. He’s serviceable but lacks the arm strength to stretch enemy defenses. The future QB looks to be 6'6 true frosh Travis Wilson, with considerable upside but likely ticketed for a redshirt this fall.

The top seven receivers from last year are also back in the fold, led by sr. WR Devonte Christopher (right), who caught a team-best 42 passes last fall. Pac-12 sources insist they’d like to see what this group of wideouts could accomplish with a strong-armed QB; as it is, neither Wynn nor Hays is much of a deep-ball threat. Which is a shame, because Christopher and the likes of other experienced wideouts such as Dres Anderson and Reggie Dunn are threats to gain yardage after the catch. Working in more-expansive space, all could be more dangerous.

While the aerial game lurched along last fall, the Utes leaned on their infantry and yet another juco, RB White (left, in a 26-14 win at Pitt lact October), who set a school record with 1519 YR on a Pac-12 high 318 carries, while also adding 17 TDs. At only 5'8 and 186 lbs., however, White does not have the sort of frame to suggest ongoing durability. A new juco addition, Kelvin York, is a 225-lb. banger from Fullerton (Ca.) College who could prove an effective change-of-pace and spare White some unnecessary punishment.

Remember, the strike force ranked only 109th nationally in total offense last season, partly due to the QB issues. Which meant that Whittingham’s defense carried most of the load to get the Utes back into the bowl mix. Can the stop unit do it again if called upon as it was a year ago?

Last year’s “D” was certainly robust, ranking 19th nationally in scoring (20.2 ppg) and displaying a playmaking bent that forced a whopping 33 turnovers, which ranked fourth-best in the country. Seven starters return, including three-quarters of what could be the Pac-12's best defensive front.

Certainly, thick 325-lb. sr. DT Star Lotulelei (right) is on NFL radar after deciding to return for one more season in Salt Lake City; don’t be surprised if he’s a first-round draftee next April. The Kruger brothers, DT Dave and DE Joe, also return, although Dave figures to be pushed at his DT spot by touted 340-lb. juco Junior Salt, who originally committed to Florida. Soph DE Nate Fakahafua only weights in at 240 lbs. but is the best athlete in the mix; Whittingham and d.c. Kalani Sitake are hoping he can become a three-down lineman instead of just a situational pass rusher as he was a year ago.

The presence of Lotulelei and depth along the line made the Utes hard to run against last year when allowing only 113.5 ypg on the ground, good for 20th in the country. Expect a similar run-stuffing theme as long as Lotulelei is in the fold.

Whittingham and Sitake, however, must replace their top two tacklers (LBs Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez) from 2011. But Pac-12 sources say there is loads of athleticism and upside within the LB group, and 6'5, 240-lb. jr. OLB Trevor Reilly emerged as a big-play weapon once assuming a starting role at midseason last fall. While the group as a whole is inexperienced, it has better (much better) collective foot speed than a year ago. With seasoning, sorts such as sophs Jacoby Hale and V.J. Fehoko could become disruptive forces.

Speaking of disruptive forces, the Utes have a few of them in the secondary, especially at the safety spots that feature former Frosh All-Americans and now-juniors Brian Blechen (left) and Eric Rowe, both on NFL radar screens. Although the Utes allowed a lot of pass yards last fall, a look inside of the stats suggests the DBs were hardly overmatched; many foes simply decided to pass vs. Utah rather than risk running against Lotulelei and his bruising friends on the front line, and Utah led the Pac-12 in lowest pass completion percentage (56.03%), lowest yards per attempt (11.87), and interceptions (19), while ranking second in TD passes allowed (18). The Utes were also one of only three teams to hold USC QB Matt Barkley to less than two TD passes a year ago.

Whittingham’s special teams are usually functional. Although PK Coleman Petersen is best remembered from a year ago by the blocked FG that USC returned for a game-ending TD in September, and missing a 48-yarder in the final seconds that would have put the regular-season finale vs. Colorado into overtime, he still hit on 18 of 25 FG tries a year ago. Senior punter Sean Sellwood, a native South African, has been a fixture for the Utes since his freshman year.

The Utes ought to be able to gain some good momentum in their first two games vs. Northern Colorado and feisty Utah State (back on the schedule this fall after missing 2011) before the first marquee test against revenge-minded BYU, a 54-10 loser to Utah last September, at Rice-Eccles Stadium on September 15. In fact, the two games that will likely measure the Utah season, the BYU date and another vs. Southern Cal at Salt Lake City on October 4, will take place in the first half of the schedule.

Spread-wise, note that Whittingham’s troops have underachieved a bit vs. the line at home since midway in the 2010 season, covering just 2 of their last 8 at Rice-Eccles, although Utah teams have continued as a spread force when receiving points, reflected in their 26-11 spread mark as an underdog since 2000.

Summary...Consensus among Pac-12 insiders is that Utah is probably second-best in the South Division of the loop; while Southern Cal looks a bit out of reach, there is no reason the Utes, who adjusted quickly last fall to the enhanced speed of the Pac-12, shouldn’t be favored in every other game this fall, and for the second straight year they miss both Stanford and Oregon from the North. If nothing else, the DT Star Lotulelei-led defense figures to keep the Utes in most games.

We respect Whittingham greatly, and if we had a little more faith in QB Jordan Wynn’s ability and durability then we would project Utah into the Top 25. But since we’re not yet convinced about Wynn, we’ll only go as far as projecting the Utes into their tenth consecutive bowl appearance and hold off on any talk about storming the rankings. By mid-October we’ll have a better idea where Utah fits into this fall’s Pac-12 picture, with a healthy Wynn the ultimate X-factor.


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