New offensive coordinator. New offense. Starting quarterback out while recovering from surgery. Two quarterbacks that have thrown a total of 1 college football pass combined. All the ingredients were there for a shaky spring out of the quarterbacks and that's exactly what we got as sophomore Griff Robles and true freshman Tyler Shreve struggled throughout in picking up Norm Chow's offense and running it effectively.
Going into the spring, the more experienced Robles, who saw mop-up duty in 2010, mostly as a running quarterback, appeared to have the edge over the incoming freshman Shreve, but Shreve quickly showed that he is the superior quarterback with physical tools and abilities that Robles just doesn't possess. The youngster Shreve, taking his first practice snaps since his senior year of high school in 2009, looked more and more poised and comfortable with the offense as the sessions and camp went along, despite not always having success hooking up with his receivers. While he's not a real threat to unseat Jordan Wynn as the starter anytime soon, Shreve does look like he could be the quarterback of the future in Utah and with more time learning Chow's offense in the offseason, could very well be the best option off the bench during the season should Wynn suffer another injury or show ineffectiveness. And while he did progress as a passer throughout camp and was picking the offense up better than Robles, there were some inexplicable throws made in practice and scrimmages at times that left you scratching your head. The upside to that? Shreve was always willing to talk to the coaches after a mistake and attempt to learn. Showed a lot of maturity for a young player and is definitely going to be an asset to this team in 2011.
Robles was the disappointment of the spring. With his big frame, running ability, and cannon for an arm that allows him to throw longer than anyone else on the roster, most figured he'd easily hold off Shreve for the backup spot to Wynn. It wasn't to be as Robles struggled mightily, throwing interceptions at an alarming rate, missing open targets, and failing to pick up the new offense as easily as one might expect for a player in his third year with the team. The offseason is going to be huge for Robles who needs to step up his game or he'll be subject to mop-up duty again for the remainder of his career at Utah. In the spring game Shreve led his red team to victory despite going 9 of 20 for 121 yards, 1 touchdown and an interception. Robles wasn't any better going 11-23 for 74 yards and an interception while failing to generate any points for his team. Both of these performances come without many of the top level defensive players participating. That has to be a concern for head Coach Kyle Whittingham and Norm Chow. That said, they both know that with more than three months until fall camp opens, the quarterbacks will have plenty of time to work on soaking up the offense and to work on their timing in voluntary workouts with their receivers in the offseason.
The biggest question mark going into the offseason is going to be how much starter Jordan Wynn took in during his time on the sidelines and in a limited amount of practice during spring ball. Wynn's a heady player who works hard on his game, but not being able to throw in camp was noticeably frustrating for the starter. If he can get his arm-strength and timing back over the summer while continuing to study the offense, the Utes should be comfortable going into fall camp at quarterback.
The biggest question mark on the team going into spring ball turned out to be one of the strengths as the Utes found three running backs that appear ready to take over the starting role in former rugby player and walk-on Thretton Palamo, true freshman Harvey Langi, and junior college transfer John White.
With the departures of Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, the medical retirement of Sausan Shakerin, and Tauni Vakapuna's decision to leave, the Utes were staring at a giant hole at the running back spot. Add in Beau Burton's medical retirement midway through camp, and the situation could have been disastrous. By the first day of camp, those concerns were alleviated as Langi, White and Palamo all proved more than capable of taking over the reins as the starter.
Langi came in with the hype. The top recruit in the state of Utah, and an early enrollee after choosing the Utes over Stanford and USC, he's impressed the coaches from the beginning with his size, speed, attitude, and work ethic. Langi put together a few long touchdown runs in practice showing his speed by outrunning corners and safeties down the sidelines, while also having a knack for picking up yardage inside with his propensity for find holes. Langi's ability to catch the ball fairly well coming out of the backfield is going to be an asset to the offense. The long striding freshman does have some work to do in a few areas, mainly in the blocking game, although he's fairly advanced for a true freshman, and in getting his pads a bit lower while running, but is going to be a special player in his time at Utah and will make an immediate impact.
The JC transfer John White didn't come in with the publicity that Langi did, but he was impressive nonetheless. The speedy back showed that he might end up being the fastest and shiftiest player on the team, consistently breaking runs both up the middle and down the sidelines. Despite his diminutive stature, White didn't shy away from contact often putting his head down in traffic while trying to bowl over defenders, something he did with more success than you'd normally anticipate from someone his size. While he might not look like a 20-25 carry a game back, he's certainly going to get his carries in 2011 and provide the Utes with that scatback that can carry the ball 10 - 15 times while catching a few out of the backfield. Arguably the most consistent of the backs in spring ball from practice to practice.
The wild card in all of this has been and will be Thretton Palamo. Palamo has had limited experience playing football and comes over from the rugby field where he was a star playing for the US National Team. At 6-2 and 240 pounds, He's a load to bring down, but combines that size with unbelievable speed for a man his size. Palamo never stops churning his legs and runs in a manner very similar to Adrian Peterson. With easily the quickest feet of any of the running backs, Palamo had multiple runs where he juked a defender and left them in their tracks, but also ran through would be tacklers over and over again. Picking up the offense and gaining a better understanding of the game, while still working on fumbling issues are Palamo's weaknesses at the moment, but the sky is the limit for him and he could turn into one of the greats.
Converted wide receiver Luke Matthews started out the spring at running back, and was impressive, but with Palamo, Langi, and White proving their worth, Matthews was able to move over to fullback and then eventually back to receiver by the end of camp.
Freshman Lucky Radley made the move over to cornerback for a bit, but struggled and was moved back to running back by the end of camp. While still finding his way in the college game, Radley had a few nice runs towards the end of camp and could receive a few reps once the season starts, but won't challenge the big three.
With the new offense the Utes will be using a using a fullback out of their regular sets. After cycling through multiple players at the position including Luke Matthews, Boo Anderson, and even Martavious Lee, Karl Williams and Jake Murphy ended up at the head of the group by the end of camp. Norm Chow did end up using his fullbacks a lot coming out of the backfield to catch the ball, and will probably continue to do so going forward, meaning athleticism is going to be a necessity at the position.
At the beginning of spring ball, it appeared as if the Utes would be replacing all three starters at wide receiver from 2010 with Jereme Brooks and Shaky Smithson graduating and Luke Matthews moving to running back. That may still be the case despite Matthews initial move to running back, then fullback, and ultimately back to receiver. With the Utes going to a two receiver set out of the west coast offense, the wide receiver competition became quite logjammed in the spring although at times you'd still see three, four, and five receiver sets.
Despite an injury that kept him out for half of spring camp, Devonte Christopher showed that he'll be the star of the receiving corp, as most expected him to be. When healthy and on the field, the ball was almost always thrown Christopher's way. If he takes the same strides from one season to the next that he took last year, he'll be an All Conference receiver who makes 60+ catches for 800+ yards and 8+ touchdowns. He gives the Utes a reliable receiver, who is also going to be a big play guy as well. Having both of those characteristics is what turns a good player into a great player.
The other star of spring camp turned out to be redshirt freshman Dres Anderson who rocketed up the depth chart and now sits as the starter according to the coaches. Anderson was magnificent, showing blazing speed, tremendous route running, and solid hands, proving that he'll be a threat that Pac 12 defenses are going to have to watch for, specifically on the deep balls.
Although he was in a no contact jersey throughout camp and missed a few days, fellow redshirt freshman Kenneth Scott was impressive in his limited time on the field. With ideal size and athleticism, and a confident streak a mile long, Scott is the kind of player that could breakout in 2011, provided he stays healthy.
He didn't have a poor spring, but Reggie Dunn did find himself trailing in the race for one of the starter spots after entering camp penciled in at the top. Dunn showed why he's considered one of the fastest players on the team with a few long catches along the sidelines where he ran right past the coverage. A weapon in the run game on the reverses and end arounds, Dunn is going to be arguably the Utes number one big play threat on offense.
Dexter Ransom is still somewhat of an unknown with this team and it's hard to peg exactly what his role will be. He's a big guy at 6-3 and close to 220 lbs and looks like a linebacker or defensive end. The Utes used him primarily as a blocker in 2010 and he excelled, but had a solid spring with a breakout performance in the spring game where he was arguably the game MVP with 4 catches for 57 yards and the game's only touchdown. Not a burner by any means, he still showed reliability going over the middle and catching balls.
What to do with Luke Matthews. The Ute coaches don't seem to be clear either as he's currently not in the two deep at any position, despite being one of the best and most consistent players regardless of where he was lining up throughout camp. He was one of the best receivers when he was there and didn't seem to lose anything from 2010 despite the tryout at running back and fullback early in camp. The coaches need to find a way to get him on the field.
Griffin McNabb didn't have the spring that he did last season where he came out of nowhere to firmly establish himself as a player in the receiver game. A reliable slot threat, he catches everything his way, but still has issues getting open at times and is hard for the quarterbacks to find. He was solid, but will make his biggest impact in 2011 returning punts.
Martavious Lee started the spring at receiver before trying his luck at fullback of all places, and eventually settling at safety by the end of camp. Lee is arguably the best route runner on the team, displaying great feet, but had drop after drop after drop, making him a liability to throw the ball to. If safety doesn't work out, Lee May slide back to receiver, but he seems excited about the change of position.
With JC transfer Anthony Denham coming aboard over the summer, this could all change quickly. Denham has the size and talent to immediately make himself the best receiver on the roster, and looks like a first day NFL draft pick.
Norm Chow loves to use the tight ends and the Utah tight ends benefited in spring ball with more passes thrown their way than in any recent Utah spring camp. While there were inconsistencies at times with drops and in the blocking game, guys like Kendrick Moeia and Westlee Tonga looked ready to have their athleticism utilized by Chow. Both have added weight and are physically impressive, especially Tonga, who had a nice camp. Dallin Rogers looks like he'll be used more in blocking roles than catching the ball, but could still be a goal line threat. Jake Murphy showed tons of athleticism while splitting time between tight end and fullback and will likely be used in both spots. If the Utes can get consisent play out of the quarterback going into the fall, the tight ends will thrive.
With two all conference linemen moving on the the NFL a new offense being installed, and a new coach at the position, the Utah offensive line figured to struggle at first in spring ball until they found the right five starters. But struggle might be an understatement as an injury to projected starter Sam Brenner and inconsistencies led to a poor showing for much of the spring.
Gone were center Zane Taylor and left guard Caleb Schlauderaff. Over to center from right guard went Tevita Stevens. Still in place were tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. With seniors Cullen and Bergstrom in place at arguably the two most important spots on the line, the Utes figured to be able to get by until an influx of JC players arrived in the fall, but that didn't happen.
First Brenner went down early in spring and missed most of the contact drills. Then highly touted freshman Zac Bolton went down and was forced to take a medical retirement. An already thin group just kept getting thinner and it showed in their play.
The pass protection can only be describe as mediocre at best. Even tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom weren't at their best, getting beaten by rushing ends more often than you'd like from a pair of seasoned seniors. Two inexperienced quarterbacks under center didn't help their cause, but the return of Jordan Wynn will only make things easier in the fall.
The running game and run blocking was significantly better, as the offensive line showed their athleticism at times with downfield blocking. The backs benefitted from a line that can be pretty nasty at times, and seems to enjoy the run blocking more than the pass blocking.
The Utes were able to find two true freshmen lineman that look like they'll be a big part of line for years to come as Isaac Asiata lived up to the hype and as the backup at the right guard spot coming out of spring, and mammoth tackle Daniel Nielsen locked down the backup spot behind Tony Bergstrom at right tackle. The right side of the line of the future is there. While Asiata had his ups and downs throughout camp with false starts and a few holding penalties, he showed his abilities as one of the anchors of the line of the future. We said it before camp and we'll say it again, he gets downfield very well for a true freshman. Nielsen is huge. If he can hone his technique and show some nasty, the Utes will have a real find in the true freshman. While I'm no convinced he holds on to the second spot in the two deep once fall camp starts, he'll provide needed depth and will be an impact player by 2012.
John Cullen held down his spot at left tackle and won't be challenged in that spot at any point. Kapua Sai looked like he'll be able to step in and perform admirably, but isn't nearly the player that Cullen is at the moment. Sai does have a pretty high ceiling though and a season with more on the field reps will do wonders as he looks to take over the job in 2012.
The left guard spot turned out to be more of a battle than most anticipated with Sam Brenner going down. If healthy, Brenner will be your starter, but that's a big if, and Percy Tuamoelau, Jeremiah Tofaeono or Isaac Asiata could all see time there if Brenner's health falters.
Tevita Stevens wasn't as impressive at the center spot in camp as I thought he would be. There's a learning curve when moving to a new position, but there were a few struggles with the center-QB exchange and the interior of the line did get beat often. Stevens did step up and take more of a vocal role with the line though and was often pointing out the assignments for other players. A full offseason of work at the center position and he should be good to go by September. Vyncent Jones provided backup at the center spot, but is at least two years away from being much of a contributor.
Percy Tuamoelau is holding down fort at right guard for now, but could get a strong push in the fall from Tofaeono and Asiata or any of the incoming JC recruits. Tuamoelau has a tremendous upside, but didn't have a great camp. He' was beaten often and wasn't getting a strong push downfield. The more reps he gets with the ones though, the better he'll be.
At right tackle is arguably the Utes best lineman in Tony Bergstrom. Bergstrom had a decent camp and spent a lot of time after practice working with the younger players. Despite the struggles of the line throughout the spring, Bergstrom will be fine and arguably the Utes best offensive player in 2011. Daniel Nielsen is backing him up right now, but I think Kapua Sai is the best backup tackle on this team and will be the first off the bench at both right and left tackle.
Two things need to happen for the offensive line to be successful: develop three more reliable offensive lineman outside of the big four of Stevens, Brenner, Cullen, and Bergstrom, and keep Cullen and Bergstrom healthy. If either Cullen or Berstrom go down and miss any time, the Utes will struggle to win more than 6 or 7 games. Those two are that important to the offense and the team.
This unit is going to be about a million times better by the end of fall camp than they are right now. With the addition of a few JC transfers scheduled to arrive in the summer, the added depth will help increase the level of competition. If it isn't, this team will struggle offensively.
John Cullen (6-5, 298, Sr.)
Kapua Sai (6-5, 307, So.)
Sam Brenner (6-3, 300, Jr.)
Jeremiah Tofaeono (6-3, 314, So.)
Tevita Stevens (6-1, 297, Jr.)
Vyncent Jones (6-3, 295, So.)
Percey Taumoelau (6-4, 314, So.)
Isaac Asiata (6-3, 307, Fr.)
Tony Bergstrom (6-6, 315, Sr.)
Daniel Nielson (6-6, 316, Fr.)
Jordan Wynn (6-1, 195, Jr.)
Tyler Shreve (6-3, 220, Fr.)
Harvey Langi (6-1, 225, Fr.) OR
John White (5-9, 190, Jr.) OR
Thretton Palamo (6-2, 240, So.)
Karl Williams (6-0, 235, So.) OR
Jake Murphy (6-4, 255, Fr.)
Devonte Christopher (6-1, 199, Jr.)
Anthony Denham (6-4, 231, Jr.)
Dres Anderson (6-1, 179, Fr.)
Reggie Dunn (6-0, 173, Jr.)
Kendrick Moeai (6-5, 250, Jr.)
Westlee Tonga (6-4, 250, So.)
Utah Spring Recap- Offense
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