Allow me to step away from recruiting and dust off my old Utah Utes' typewriter. While I haven't been able to follow and cover the Utes like I used to, I have some insight on the upcoming season and a few things to watch for.
I'll state the obvious, quickly. Utah has one of the finest running backs in the country. Devontae Booker was fantastic in 2014 and he was just scratching the surface. He has improved his hands out of the backfield, worked on his blocking technique, taken strides with ball security, and seen gains in the weight room. What does that mean for the Utes?
It means ride the Booker train. He isn't getting the national respect he deserves early on, but the people that matter know how good he is. Pac-12 foe want nothing to do with the 1st team All-conference back, NFL scouts see him as a 2nd to 4th round pick (due to RBs being valued less), and the Utah coaching staff knows that they go, as he goes. Coach Erickson said Booker is one of the best he has been around, and when you look at his resume, that speaks volumes. DB is up there with guys like Steven Jackson.
After Booker, the next best Ute is Jared Norris. It's his defense and any debates about that are a waste of time. He may not be very heralded, though his name is gaining some steam after Coach Pease hyped him up last week. Norris is instinctive, violent, and an above-average athlete.
Whether Norris finds himself in the All-American conversation or not, if he plays anything like he did in 2014, he belongs there. 41 has improved his ball skills, is the unquestioned leader (with Blechen and Orchard gone), and as reliable as they come. You'd be hard pressed to name 20 better football players in the conference.
It's still a mystery as to why Norris had the plug pulled on him in 2012, after making a mistake or two against Utah State. He is a great linebacker. If he can stay healthy, Norris will end up as one of the best LBs in school history.
Time To Step Up
These are guys that have been around long enough and need to produce at a higher level to take the Utes to that next level in the Pac-12.
Justin Thomas has been a steady nickle corner for the Utes. He will occasionally make some obvious mistakes, but the rising junior has been solid over the past two seasons. It's time for him to take it up a notch.
Eric Rowe, Davion Orphey, and Brian Blechen have all moved on. Thomas needs to start making big plays for Utah. He is undersized, but he has the speed, skill, and toughness to compensate for that. For Utah to compete and potentially win the South, Thomas is going to have to be more than steady and solid, he is going to have to be special.
Jason Whittingham is a rising senior and it's time for him to bring it all together. He had some really impressive games as a sophomore, but he struggled with consistency and staying healthy. Last year he regressed, partially due to injuries and also playing 10 pounds too heavy.
He has all the tools to lock down that third spot at LB, but he needs to put it together from a physical and mental standpoint. It would be nice to see him build on that solid 2013 campaign, but there are a few guys nipping at his heels for that spot.
Pita Taumoepenu is another guy that needs to take his game to the next level. He has been around Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard for his first two years at the U. That's pretty good company for a pass rusher.
With Orchard gone, Taumoepenu will have to fill at least some of that void. He showed flashes last year, but it was often against weaker opponents, like Idaho State, Fresno State, and Colorado. Pita will have to get consistent pressure against the high caliber offenses in the Pac-12.
He has a tremendous burst and is very strong, despite not weighing a lot. If he can improve his fundamentals under Coach Pease, he could see double digit sacks. 8-10 sacks is an ideal goal for Taumoepenu as a junior.
Andre Godfrey is a guy that could surprise some people. He was one of the most coveted prospects Utah landed in 2014, but he struggled to find that field with any consistency.
He had some impressive moments against UCLA. Look for No.7 to lock down one of the two safety spots and make some big plays in 2015. He has the instincts and hard hitting ability of Brian Blechen, but the quickness and play making ability of an SEC defensive back. On and off the field, the Miramar product is a scholar. He is a film-study rat and a very good student.
I antcipate Godfrey will become a fan favorite by the end of his sophomore year.
I feel a little silly calling this next guy a "sleeper", but Siaosi Aiono would falls under this category, in my opinion.
The Utah center will end up with over 30 career starts for Utah and has a decent shot to get drafted next spring, yet he has little to no recognition amongst the fan base or conference. "Osi" is the anchor of the offensive line and was probably the second best linemen for Utah last year (behind Poutasi).
Booker will want to buy this guy a steak dinner or two, once he cashes in on his first NFL paycheck. My bet is Aiono will also be earning a few of those checks.
My last sleeper candidate hasn't stepped foot on campus yet. Joseph Williams is going to be a guy for the Utes. Like Osi, Booker will want to buy him a steak. If Coach Erickson and Cano weren't able to find this guy hidden away at Asa College, Devontae would have to carry the workload all by himself. With Troy McCormick going down, Williams' value went up tenfold. He will be ready to contribute from the get-go.
Earlier this month, Williams ran a 10.5 100M. For good marks, he also chipped in a 21.67 200M. That is moving with a purpose. When you factor in his stout 5-11 205 pound frame, you've got the ideal candidate to carry the torch once Booker has moved on. In the meantime, he will play a superb sidekick to DB.
A little bonus, because I feel cheap naming Aiono as a sleeper.
It's no secret that the wide receiver depth chart is a bit thin. I like what I've seen from Tyrone Smith. He isn't as ready as Raelon Singleton, but Smith has a nice upside to him. He may not be a guy that's ready to make noise when Michigan comes to town, but by Colorado, he may be. Either way, remember the name, he could be a solid receiver for years to come.
My last guy worth keeping a close eye on is Sunia Tauteoli. The East HS/Snow College prospect will be worth the wait for Utah. If you give him a simple task, he will deliver massive results. His name has been out there a bit this spring, but once he gets a summer of strength and conditioning, he could come back as one of the top 3 backers.
I think Tauteoli will start some games for Utah in 2015. He isn't as well rounded as Norris and he may not be the game changer that Gionni Paul is, but he is a great third wheel. As he grows more comfortable with the defense, he will only get better. Watch No.40 closely...
As always, weigh in on the message boards. Agree, disagree, have different thoughts? Let us know.