Against mid-level completion, the quarterbacks have been awesome. Against power 5 level competition, they have been ineffective to downright atrocious. Perhaps that's a bit over the top for a team with a 5-1 record, but here are a few numbers to consider. 62, 100, 165, 190. Those are the net passing yards for the past four games (all against Power 5 level competition) at Oregon State, at UCLA, against Wazzu and at Michigan. Flat out, those numbers aren't good enough to get it down through the home stretch. The fact that both Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson have been swapping starts over the past two games speaks volumes for what this coaching staff thinks of their abilities and performances. Utah is ranked 11 in the conference in passing (as usual) with an average of 191.8 yards per game. Against P5 opponents, Utah is averaging an anemic 129 yards per game.
Running Backs: A
Going into the season the RB position was praised, but for different reasons than it is today. The trio of Poole, Booker and McCormick was being discussed for all of the possibilities and skills each brought (Poole's experience and pass-catching, Booker's power and McCormick's speed). Today, the light shines solely on Devontae Booker. Booker has quickly established himself as one of, if not the best RB in the Pac12. He is also second in the nation only to Melvin Gordon in rush yards per game in conference play. That's awfully good company to be in. The OL is best suited to run block, and Utah will need Booker's production to continue, if not increase, for the rest of the season if they want to have a shot at the South title. Devontae is averaging 123.7 rush yards per game, despite only getting 20 combined carries through the first two games. It's becoming clearly a one-man-show (remember 2011 with the Wolfman?) and it would be haunting to know where the Utes would be without Booker. Overall grade is easily an A for this group (individual).
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: D+
The WR's and TE's were arguably the most touted position group during fall camp, and looked to be off to a good start to the season, but drops over the past 3 games have had a huge negative effect on the offense and has lead to an extremely poor passing offense. Dres Anderson seemed to have turned a corner as he caught everything thrown his way in camp and through the first 3 games, but has struggled mightily the past 3 games holding on to the ball. Kenneth Scott has had similar issues but haven't been as glaring. Kaelin Clay has also struggled with drops and hasn't been involved in the offense as much as expected. Also, what happened to throwing the ball to the TE? Tonga had a great TD against Fresno State but has seemingly disappeared since then in the passing game. Tonga has been good in run blocking but virtually non existent in the throw game. The WR's & TE's haven't been helped out much by the QB's at times, but they've been an eye-sore for the offense as of late.
Offensive Line: C-
If all they have to do is run-block this is a slightly above average Pac 12 line. J.J. Dielman has turned into a more than serviceable tackle and has a solid future ahead of him. Poutasi has had a nice bounce-back year at left tackle, although he's not reaching the promise we saw in the spring of 2013. Siaosi Aiono has turned into a nasty run-blocker and reliable center. The guards? They need work. Junior Salt has been a disappointment. The fact that he can't hold down his spot is pretty telling for a guy with that kind of natural talent. Can't pass block at all. Isaac Asiata will blow a guy up on one play and then completely whiff on the next. Leka Uhatafe has been ok, but his youth shows out there at times, and he hasn't shown as much nasty that Salt and Asiata in the run game. The pass blocking as a group has been horrid. The run blocking has been pretty good. Because of it, Utah is now a power run team.
Defensive Line: A+
Utah leads the nation in sacks with 33 through six games while Virginia Tech and Washington have 28 and 27 respectively though seven games. Yeah, this line is good, really good. Nate Orchard is doing exactly what we all thought he could do while Hunter Dimick is exceeding expectations and improving every game. The interior of the line has quickly improved since a poor start against Idaho State and now ranks second in the conference in run defense giving up a measly 114.2 yards per game. If this group can maintain their current performance level, you might be looking at one of Utah's best defensive line groups in the past 10 years.
Similar to the RB situation, the LB corps for Utah was thought to be one of the best units on the team. Jason Whittingham had a great stretch at the end of last year, Jacoby Hale's pass rushing was going to be utilized heavily this year, Gionni Paul was talked about as the best of the group, and Jared Norris looked like one of the best players on the field during the season. Injuries happen, and it hit the LB group hard. Whittingham, Hale and Paul all got set back with injuries, and Jared Norris spent most meaningful time during camp on the sideline to not risk injuring one more member of the depleted group.
Jared Norris has been a first-team All Pac12 guy who plays the game fearlessly and is averaging 9.7 tackles/game, 1.6 of those being for a loss, good for third and fifth in the Pac12. Gionni Paul missed the first two games and when he got on the field for his first game at Michigan he completely changed the look of the defense. His play elevated the entire defense and he has amassed 37 tackles (9.25/game) and has 3 INTs which ranks him second overall in conference. All things considered, this group has been awfully good this year, and should only get better as Paul gets more mileage on him and Hale and Whittingham get back on the field. Grade for this group is an A-, would be A without all of the injuries and whatever happened against Washington State.
Cornerback was a big question mark heading in to the season, and have had pretty good season thus far after a sub par start against Idaho State. Former safety Eric Rowe has settled in nicely at corner and is fantastic against the run. He's prone to being beat deep occasionally, but has been solid all around. Nickel back Justin Thomas has been great and may be one of the best nickel backs in the conference; good against the run and pass, and is lethal coming off the edge in blitz packages. The most surprising aspect of the corners to some is who has turned out to be the best corner on the team. Former WR Dominique Hatfield. Domo played sparingly at CB and WR in the first game, but made the full time switch to CB afterwards and quickly became Utah's best cover corner. He's still learning on the job but has been great so far. Davion Orphey, a starter last season, has looked much better in a backup role this season and had a nice game against Oregon State.
You can grade the safeties in two ways; when Tevin Carter plays, and when Tevin Carter doesn't. They're a completely different group when he is in there. Carter has tons of speed and has show to be a playmaker. Unfortunately, he's been injured off and on. Without his pick-6, Utah probably doesn't beat UCLA. Brian Blechen has been what he is; a smart guy that can help captain a defense and get everyone in the right place. He'll put a huge hit on ANYONE that crosses the middle. Blechen has also had breakdowns in pass coverage, showing a lack of speed, and too many missed tackles. Andre Godfrey has filled in admirably for Carter since early in the UCLA game. Has a very bright future. Marcus Williams was downright bad in his reps. Not sure why he was getting the start over a guy like Charles Henderson, even if Henderson has less talent. Utah NEEDS to develop more playable talent at safety. Scalley needs to find a way to do that.
Special Teams: A+
Tom Hackett is the best punter in the country. Andy Phillips is arguably the best kicker in the country. Kaelin Clay has been the most productive return man in the country. Oh, and the Utes cover kicks VERY well. Whittingham apparently knows how to coach special teams. This is the best overall unit in the country, without question.
Utah has exceeded expectations, and maybe even their own expectations to this point. They're prepared each week to do whats necessary to win each game. That's the job of each coach. Now, Sitake and Tuiaki should get A+ grades, and Whittingham deserves a high grade as well for overseeing it all and running the special teams. Still some minor issues at corner, although Shah has done a solid job despite losing Utah's best cover guy. Safety haven't been bad, especially when Tevin Carter can play, but the play of the defensive line has somewhat masked their deficiencies. Still haven't developed much playable depth and that's on Scalley. Offensively? Mixed bag. Dave Christensen has been very up and down in calling plays, and the Wazzu game was a disaster. UCLA game though? Tremendous adjustment in finding out what works. The offensive line looks minimally better than last season, and possibly worse in pass protection with Harding on board. Roderick hasn't done anything with the quarterbacks while Stubblefield has turned a promising group of receivers into the worst in the Pac 12. Fortunately, Utah has Devontae Booker to bail out the rest of offense. Have to wonder whether it was Erickson, Christensen, or Whitt holding Booker back from being the starter. Overall, Utah has done better than pretty much anyone expected to this point, and the coaches deserve a lot of that credit.
Midseason Position Review
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