It's a three horse race with all new guys to the program in Thretton Palamo, Harvey Langi and John White. Palamo is the walk-on former rugby player. He's 6-3, 240 pounds and looks like a fullback or tight end out there. With incredibly fast feet and an ability to make defenders miss, while also putting his head down and running over people as he did in the spring, Palamo may have the highest ceiling of the three backs. He just needs to learn how to pick up a block and gain a better understanding of the game. Langi is the true freshman who enrolled early after picking the Utes over the likes of USC, Stanford, and UCLA. A highly rated local product, he looked nothing like s freshman in the spring and at times was the most impressive all-around back. He's got very good size to go along with deceptive speed. Could end up being one the top contributing freshman backs in the country. John White is the JC transfer with tons of speed. He too participated in spring ball and was impressive. While his ability to get outside and beat someone down the sidelines is a given, White was much better than expected between the tackles, making it hard for defenders to drag him down. He won't be a 30 carries per game guy, but despite his stature, he can still be the feature back in the new west coast offense. Going into spring this was the biggest question mark on the team, but it appears to be a position of strength as we head into the fall. Whether it's White, Palamo, Langi, or a platoon, Utah is set at running back.
Tevita Stevens, John Cullen, and Tony Bergstrom are entrenched at their center and tackle spots respectively. Sam Brenner has the left guard spot pretty much locked down and the coaches like what they have in Percy Taumoelau at right guard. Vyncent Jones is the backup center. But what happens when somebody goes down? The offensive line struggled as a whole in the spring and Utah cannot afford to lose any top-flight guys. Guys like Kapua Sai and Jeremiah Tofoeano are the top candidates at both tackle and guard spots respectively with true freshman Isaac Asiata and Daniel Nielsen penciled in as backups on the right side (although I believe Sai and Tofoeano would get the call at those spots first). A glut of incoming JC lineman including Miles Mason, Po'u Palelei, and Benji Kemoeatu (assuming they all qualify and make it on campus) will also be in the mix and compete for time and depth. Each one of those guys has the ability to step in right away and compete for a spot in the two deep. As long as the Utes can find 8 guys that they're comfortable with and can shuffle around, they should be ok, but I'm still only sold on four of them right now.
There's still one spot up in the air with Devonte Christopher locking down the X spot. Dres Anderson is at the top of the depth chart at the Y spot, but is going to be pushed by guys like Reggie Dunn, Kenneth Scott, Luke Matthews, Luke Fitzgerald, Anthony Dehman, and Dexter Ransom. Anderson and Dunn are in the same mold as burners who will be big-time down the field threats. Both were good in fall camp, but Anderson really surprised and shot up the depth chart. Guys like Scott, Denham and Ransom are better suited at the X, but the important thing in this offense is to make it into the rotation of 5 or 6 players, and they should be able to do that. Denham is the highly recruited JC player who has as much natural talent as any receiver Utah has had in couple of years, while Scott has battled injuries in his year on campus, but when on the field, was a tough matchup in the spring. The biggest question mark is what's going to happen with Luke Matthews. He was a starting wide receiver last season, before being moved to running back, then fullback, then receiver again in the spring. He's too good and has too much experience to keep off of the field and could figure heavily into the mix. Regardless of who ends up opposite Christopher as the starter, the Utes will have 6 to 8 receivers that they can count on to make plays. They're a young group as well. In 2012 they're going to be scary good.
Is it going to be James Aiono or Dave Kruger? Aiono came in with all the hype in 2010, but struggled to find a groove during the season and wasn't overly effective. Now that he is entrenched at the tackle spot instead of playing some end as he did at times last season, Aiono seems to have come around and had a great spring. Kruger has started 17 games in his first two seasons, but had a drop-off in production his sophomore year. He has unbelievable strength but his height does present problems when it comes to getting leverage inside. Could see time at the end spot as well, but is better suited for the tackle. Aiono is topping the depth chart now, but these two could easily flip-flop a few times in camp. If he's healthy, Latu Heimuli could make a run at these two. He's an elite talent, but has had foot issues throughout this career. Regardless of who comes out as the starter, the Utes will be in great shape.
Arguably the most stacked position on the roster. Sophomore Joe Kruger and Senior Derrick Shelby are penciled in as the starters right now, but there are quite a few players nipping at their heels. If healthy, and with their heads screwed on correctly, Kruger and Shelby are, without question, the top ends. But Shelby has battled injuries and doesn't always seem to bring it on every play, while Kruger is still young. Both of these guys are NFL talents, especially Kruger, who was unstoppable in the spring. If everything comes together, he has first round pick potential. The biggest challenger to these two is senior Tevita Finau. Finau didn't join the team until The wildcard in the defensive end situation? Lei Talamaivao. Talamaivao missed all of the 2010 with a leg injury and sat out spring ball as well. He's played in 19 games over an injury-marred career, but the Utah coaches are still high on is ability and think he can compete for a starting spot. Others looking to make an impact are David Rolfe, Nai Fotu, who has played some DE/LB hybrid, and even true freshman Nate Fakahafua, who defensive line coach Chad Kauaha'aha'a thinks can get into the two deep.
Probably the biggest question mark or position battle heading into the fall is at both safety spots. The Utes are replacing the safeties with Justin Taplin-Ross off to the NFL and Brian Blechen moving up to linebacker. Keith McGill is the All American JC player who the Utes are counting heavily on to make an impact. He's finally on campus and has all of the tools to be the next great Utah DB. He was a real ballhawk at the JC level grabbing 11 interceptions over his two season. Incoming freshman Eric Rowe is receiving high praise without having stepped on the field with the coaches placing him at the top of the depth chart. Rowe is a very good athlete who understands the game well and uses his long stride to make up ground quickly. Sophomore Michael Walker had a solid spring and is topping the depth chart at strong safety. He's a talented player, but his top spot may be more of a lack of anyone else stepping up than anything that Walker did to separate himself. Greg Bird is a returning senior who sat out the spring with an injury, but brings the most experience of anyone in the group. He's played some linebacker as well and brings a hard hitting mentality to the safety spot. Quade Chappuis was impressive in the spring and brings a fire to the team despite physical limitations. Pamian Payne enrolled early in 2010 and had a big spring before an injury in the fall forced him to redshirt. The coaches are expecting a lot out of the speedy and athletic Payne and he looked close to full strength in the spring. However this ends up shaking out, and whether the Utes are able to find reliable and consistent players is going to go a long ways towards determining their overall team success in 2011.
Nick Marsh was expected to take over for the graduating Joe Phillips in the spring, but struggled throuhgout. Coleman Peterson wasn't much better leaving the kicker spot in limbo. Peterson is at the top of the depth chart, but Marsh is the more talented kicker with the bigger leg. We could end up seeing these two split duties on long and short kicks.
Fall Camp Position Battles
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