Utah Offensive Line vs UNC Defensive Line
Utah Offensive Line
When the game kicks off on Thursday everyone will have their eyes on Utah's offensive line. Replacing tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom has been a bigger task than Coach Whittingham had hoped but maybe not a bigger task than expected. Many were given a shot at left guard and each tackle position and ultimately the coaching staff chose Miles Mason(LT), Jeremiah Tofaeono(LG), and Percy Taumoelao(RT) as the starters post-fall camp. Mason is the most experienced of the three after spending a lot of time on Utah's offensive line last season both starting games and filling in for injured players. Tofaeono and Taumoelao on the other hand are a little more raw. There have been hints of additional shakeup on the line but nothing concrete has been announced so until the ball flies in the air on Thursday the true starters may remain a question-mark.
UNC Defensive Line
UNC runs a typical 4-3 base defense which means we'll see 4 down linemen for the majority of the game. Sophomore tackles Devontae Chapple and Lexington Smith return after having stellar freshman years' to anchor the UNC line. Chapple started all 11 games for the Bears last season (UNC's only returning DL starter) but played 10 of those games at defensive end. He led all returning defensive linemen in tackles in 2011 with 44 including 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He'll be the man to watch on this line as his matchup with Tofaeono should be a good one. Nose tackle Lexington Smith racked up 31 tackles last year with 3 TFL's and 1 sack despite not starting a game while end starters Marcus Lucas and Gavin Miller combined for 23 tackles, 2.5 TFL's and 1 sack.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs UNC Linebackers
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends
Returning newly crowned single season rushing record-holder John White will give Utah the advantage at this position in just about every game this season. However, it isn't just White that the Utes will rely on this year. Utah added JUCO runner Kelvin York to their stable of backs this past spring and he's expected to add a level of depth at the position that Utah didn't seem to have last year. Jarrell Oliver is another running back to watch out for. Oliver was recently moved to the #2 position on Utah's depth chart which means Utah will likely use two and probably even three backs per game this year in order to keep everyone (mainly White) healthy and fresh. Tight end is a little more jumbled but it's not because of a lack of talent. The Utes will use a good mix of David Rolf, Jake Murphy, and Westlee Tonga throughout each game depending on the situation as each receiver comes with their own strengths and weaknesses.
UNC's top three tacklers from 2011 all came from the linebacker position. Two of those players, Clarence Bumpas and Cameron Friend, return for the Bears in 2012. Bumpas, the middle linebacker, is a 2012 FCS Pre-Season All-American and he's the heart and soul of the UNC defense. He led the bears in tackles with 145, over 50 tackles more than the next closest player. Bumpas plays with sound technique and speed and is a leader on the field despite being just a junior. Bumpas's partner in crime Cameron Friend was UNC's second leading tackler last season tallying 93 stops and has been voted a team captain for the Bears this year. In 2011 the two combined to make 14.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries on top of their 238 combined stops. These are not your average players. UNC's third linebacker is inexperienced sophomore Leilon Willingham. I expect this position group to see a lot of action as John White and Utah's running backs should make it past the first level quite often throughout the game.
Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs UNC Corners and Safeties
Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers
Jordan Wynn will make his return to Utah's starting lineup on Thursday after missing much of last season due to injury. Wynn's arm troubles have been well documented over the past two seasons and Utah fans everywhere are nervously awaiting his return. What Jordan Wynn will we see? Only time will tell but fans collectively are hoping for the Poinsettia Bowl version from 2009 over the more recent Jordan Wynn that has played through multiple injuries. Either way much of Utah's 2012 success will depend on Wynn's durability because he definitely has the weapons to be successful. Devonte Christopher, Dres Anderson, Kenneth Scott, and many more will give Utah a consistent threat all across the field. Deep, short, 1st down or 3rd Utah will have a receiver capable of making a play as long as the quarterback can get him the ball.
UNC Corners and Safeties
Senior cornerback Marcel Gibbons is the lone returning starter from a secondary that ranked 8th in the Big Sky in 2011 allowing over 267 yards per game through the air. Gibbons was UNC's third leading tackler posting 90 stops along with 12 TFL's, 3 sacks, and 3 interceptions. Gibbons will have the responsibility of slowing down DeVonte Christopher and despite all the good he did last season I'm not convinced he's up to the task. Courtney Hall started just two games for the Bears last year and he's slotted as the 2nd CB starter. He'll likely face Dres Anderson and like Gibbons will have a tough matchup on his hands. Safeties Jordan Bible and Tyler Dogins are both very inexperienced and will need to grow up quickly if they want to prevent an all out air assault from the Utes.
Utah Defensive Line vs UNC Offensive Line
Utah Defensive Line
Utah returns three of 2011's four starters and will run out possibly its best defensive line in the history of the program. A lot still needs to be proven on the field before we can make that statements for certain but on paper this is a very formidable group. Star Lotulelei will anchor the line and receive the bulk of the attention as one of the top nose tackles in the country while Dave and Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua will supply the ‘flash' benefiting from the double and triple-teams that are bound to go Star's way. Utah has depth at every position on this line and will be active in rotating players throughout the game meaning players like Seni Fauonuku, Tenny Palepoi, Thretton Palamo, and Trevor Reilly (among many others) will all see time on the line. Watch out for Seni in 2012. He impressed both coaches and teammates throughout camp and could be a breakout player this season.
UNC Offensive Line
This is the most experienced position group on the team as four of the five linemen started in multiple games last season - the one exception being right tackle and redshirt freshman Sean Palinckx who obviously is as green as they come. The experience of the starters should give UNC a solid line to work with throughout their Big Sky campaign, but against this Utah front-four even these veteran linemen will have a hard time keeping defenders out of the backfield. I expect Palinckx to struggle against the speed and size of Nate Fakahafua and expect to see a lot of Trevor Reilly in this matchup as well. Look for Defensive Coordinator Kalani Sitake to take advantage of Palinckx's youth in a variety of ways. As expected Star Lotulelei should dominate the middle of this line.
Utah Linebackers vs UNC Running Backs and Tight Ends
The graduation of Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez left Utah with some big holes to fill in their linebacker corps. Luckily for the Utes they returned some fantastic young talent that developed very nicely throughout the offseason and removed a lot of doubt from what many initially believed to be a major weakness on this team. V.J. Fehoko, Jared Norris, and LT Filiaga really stepped up in camp and locked down the linebacker position as the weeks went by. Watch for Trevor Reilly, the extremely versatile player who will have plays and positions customized for him all over the field this year. His primary position at outside linebacker is where he'll see the most action and he's bound to make more than a few memorable plays in 2012.
UNC Running Backs and Tight Ends
UNC runs a pass-first spread and pistol formation offense with very little work from the running backs. In 2011 Northern Colorado ranked 8th in the Big Sky in rush offense averaging just 56 yards per game scoring on the ground just 5 times all season. The low rush numbers could have been a result of the amount of games UNC trailed in but on the whole Utah should expect to see a lot more pass than run. Running back Quentin Hildreth returns as the starter for the Bears after rushing for 451 yards in 9 games last year. Hildreth averaged just 43 yards per game and his 3 rushing touchdowns led the team in 2011. At tight end the Bears expect to start senior Doug Steele, a player who started 7 games but was rather unproductive in his time on the field. Steele played in 10 games and hauled in just 7 receptions for 68 yards. I don't expect either position to cause Utah's young linebackers any problems.
Utah Corners and Safeties vs UNC Quarterback and Wide Receivers
Utah Corners and Safeties
The departure of Conroy Black to the NFL has left shoes for Moe Lee and Ryan Lacy to step up and fill. Black started his career at Utah a little slow but by the time his senior year was underway he had developed into a very good, albeit typical Utah corner. Now it's time for Moe Lee and Lacy, both seniors, to do the same. Thursday's game will give all of Utah's corners a good warm up test against some fast receivers and an offense that loves to chuck the ball around. Outside of Lee and Lacy Wykie Freeman, Lewis Walker, and Tyler White will all see time. At safety Utah will be without Brian Blechen but Eric Rowe and Quade Chappuis are more than capable of securing the deep parts of the field against UNC's speedy receivers.
UNC Quarterback and Wide Receivers
Seth Lobato, Dominic Gunn, Dimitri Stimphil, and Jace Davis. These are a few names Ute fans should get used to hearing because they're going to hear them a lot more when Thursday evening rolls around. Lobato is a junior that had a statistically productive sophomore season in 2011 passing for just under 250 yards per game in 9 starts. Lobato's 17 /10 touchdown-to-interception ratio was a good sophomore season to build on but he'll need to cut down on the interceptions this year if he wants to earn the Bears a few wins. At receiver Gunn and Stimphil are playmakers who use speed and elusiveness to break down opposing defenses. Gunn's 5 touchdowns and 330 receiving yards lead all returning receivers. Stimphil's numbers were nearly identical to Gunn's; he hauled in 301 yards last season but failed to find the end zone. Davis was a big play receiver in 2010 leading the team in receptions and yards but missed last season due to academic issues. There is definitely talent at the core of this passing offense but don't expect it to cause the Utah secondary much trouble.
Unit Matchups - Northern Colorado at Utah
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