Coming out of spring practice what were your impressions of the team's offense?
The offense is still a work in progress. The Utes are on their seventh offensive coordinator in seven years, which means new terminology, new formations, and new expectations. The tempo is improved, which is a plus as Utah has been trying to move towards a more up-tempo offense in recent years, but we're not talking Oregon speed right now.
The biggest question mark has to be at the quarterback spot. Travis Wilson was sort of cleared for spring and took the first team reps, but he hasn't been fully cleared to take hits after his season ending prematurely in 2013 due to a scary situation in which a spot on his brain, that most thought would end his career, was discovered. Wilson was awful for the first week, but gradually improved as camp went on. He's still a solid QB with a lot of upside, but the medical situation is still unknown and the guy threw 16 interceptions last year in only nine games.
The running back spot is loaded with Bubba Poole, Devontae Booker, and Troy McCormick. Booker is a next level back while Poole and McCormick are dynamic guys that can take it to the house every time they touch the ball.
Dres Anderson is an elite receiver and looked even better this spring while getting Kenneth Scott back is a huge plus. Outside of the those two, though, the Utes have a bunch of unproven wideouts. They'll need to find a third. Whether that is Kaelin Clay (if he qualifies), Dominique Hatfield, or Delshawn McClellon, someone has to take some pressure off of Anderson and Scott.
The offensive line was a huge disappointment last season. They weren't any better in the spring. Fortunately, Jeremiah Poutasi looked slimmed down and healthy. He rotated between left guard and left tackle in the spring and was easily Utah's best offensive lineman. Outside of him though, it's a bunch of question marks as they replace 2 starters, while the other two returners along with Poutasi are working at a new position (Siaosi Aiono from RT to C) or missed spring with an injury (Junior Salt).
Coming out of spring practice what were your impressions of the team's defense?
Utah is known for their D and I don't expect that to be any different this season. What they may lack is an elite conference player of the year, but there is more depth on the defensive line and at corner than we've seen in years, while the linebackers could be one of the best groups in the conference. Safety is still a concern. Utah is relying on Brian Blechen who doesn't have Pac-12 speed and either Eric Rowe (who played some corner) or incoming JC transfer Tevin Carter (who missed spring with the an injury). There are a bunch of incoming freshman, but in a conference with guys like Mariota, Hundley, Kelly, Halliday, and Mannion, putting a freshman out there is a scary proposition.
Kalani Sitake is one of the best defensive coordinators in the conference and always gets more out of his guys than he should. They continue to get better as the season goes along, so despite all of the new additions, Utah should again have one of the better defenses in the Pac-12.
Who are the players on each side of the ball that were the biggest surprises of spring practice?
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest surprise was probably running back Troy McCormick. We knew he was good, but the redshirt freshman-to-be looks to have added a new gear and is running between the tackles as well as any running back his size that I've ever seen. Offensive tackle J.J. Dielman also had a very good camp and put himself in position to compete for a starting spot in the fall.
Defensively, this was our first good look at Miami transfer Gionni Paul, and he didn't disappoint. The linebacker was easily Utah's best defender for the first half of camp before breaking his foot. Defensive end Pita Taumoepenu looks like he could be an animal as a 3rd-down pass rusher. Violent hands and off the charts athleticism made him a terror that no tackles for Utah could handle. Pretty impressive for a kid that has only been playing football for a couple of years.
Did this year's spring ball have a different feel than last year's?
Spring felt a bit different for a few reasons. The new facilities are completed and Utah had complete use of them, which made for a more comfortable spring for the players and coaches. The new offensive coordinator and tweaks to the offense also made things a bit different. It's also odd not seeing former QB turned QB coach turned offensive coordinator turned QB coach Brian Johnson not out there as he left for Mississippi State in the off-season.
Going into fall camp, what do you think is the team's biggest strength and what is its biggest concern?
Biggest strength on the offensive side of the ball is at receiver. You could make the case that Dres Anderson is the best in the Pac-12 (although Nelson Agholor and Jaelen Strong are pretty good) and they may have the best duo in Anderson and Kenneth Scott. The question though is who will throw them the ball and will the offensive line give that QB enough time? The linebackers will be out of this world as well. Jason Whittingham, Gionni Paul, and Jared Norris are next level type of guys.
Biggest concern has to be that QB situation and the offensive line. Travis Wilson may never take another game snap and Kendal Thompson is all hype and projection right now. If he's as good as everyone in Salt Lake City hopes, then getting to a bowl game is well within reach. The offensive line is a mess. They were awful last season and weren't any better in the spring. Nothing I've seen since the beginning of September through spring ball leads me to believe that they'll be any better in 2014. If you can't block, you're going to have trouble winning games.