Going into 2014, there were question marks pretty much everywhere outside of the receiving group. What happened? The receivers were dreadful while most of the other position groups outperformed their expectations. Heading into 2015, Utah's position groups look a lot better on paper than in previous seasons. So which units should we be optimistic about?
Surprised? Hear me out. Utah's QB situation is actually better than you might think. The Utes showed last season that they don't need even average quarterback play to be a factor in the Pac 12 South. Both Wilson and Thompson appeared to have good off-seasons (especially Thompson throwing the ball) and neither has to deal with the ball and chain that was Dave Christensen last season, so that's addition by subtraction. The offensive line play will be improved and the passing game has promised to air it out more (something that suits Wilson's skill-set). With opposing defenses continuing to key on Devontae Booker, the anticipated improvement out of the quarterbacks, a couple of OCs that the players actually like and trust, it sets up for what could and should be a big improvement over last season, even if the receiving corps doesn't look as dangerous.
Devontae Booker heads into 2015 as one of the running backs on the short list for the Heisman Trophy. He was the best back in the conference last season (awards, yardage, and all conference honors be damned) and looks to be in better shape than in 2014. He's an absolute monster, and barring injury, is a shoe-in for a minimum of 1,200 yards on the ground with another 400 through the air. Those numbers would probably end up being a disappointment, yet 98% of the backs in the country would take them right now if they could.
Four starters back. Big improvements over the second half of the 2014 season. An offensive line coach that looks to be one of the better ones in the conference. Yeah, Poutasi's gone, but the interior of Aiono, Asiata, and Uhatafe all come back. That's almost 1,000 pounds of beef inside for a team that is going to get a solid push and open up holes for their superstar running back. Aiono is as solid as they come and often overlooked as well. You can make a strong case that he's the most complete center in the Pac 12. JJ Dielman's move from right tackle to left looked seamless in the spring. If Sam Tevi can give Utah average right tackle play, especially in the passing game, this should be one of the top 5 or 6 lines in the conference.
Depth. Talent. Speed. Size. Athleticism. This is the best defensive line in the conference and it all starts right in the middle with Lowell Lotulelei. The sophomore is one of the top defensive linemen in the conference and is only going to get better and better each and every week. If he's in the proper shape, Lowell can be an all american. When Lowell needs a blow, there's plenty of depth inside with Filipo Mokofisi, Stevie Tui'kolovatu, Seni Fauonuku, and Clint Shepard. That's a solid mix of five different guys that all do different things very well. Then on the outside, you've got double-digit sack man Hunter Dimick. Not the athlete that Nate Orchard was last season, but one could argue that Dimick was more valuable than Nate in 2014, often setting him up for his sacks. Dimick should hit double digits again. Opposite Hunter is a nice mix of guys led by freak athlete speed rusher Pita Taumoepenu. Unfair speed and hands so violent that they should be in cuffs, it's time for Pita to make a big jump in production. Kylie Fitts and Jason Fanaika are good players that can do a lot of different things as well. Neither is going to be an elite pass rusher, but both are very strong, play the run well and can even slip inside on certain situations. We've also seen Fanaika play linebacker. Lots of versatility with this group.
The starter trio of Paul, Norris, and Whittingham is the best in the conference. They don't have the flash or get the headlines that the So Cal linebackers at UCLA and USC will get, but the production speaks for itself. Norris is a tackling machine that has sneaky athleticism, while Paul has the best instincts of any Utah backer since I started covering the team in 2010. Jason Whittingham, when healthy, is a versatile linebacker that gets into the backfield very well and can be a devastating pass rusher. Throw in Sunia Tauteoli, who had a good spring camp, and Uaea Masina, who looks to be at a more appropriate weight to play linebacker, and things should be great if they can stay healthy.
Will Dominique Hatfield be the best corner in the Pac 12? Is he headed towards a 1st round NFL draft selection next year? The kid is that good and the best Utah corner since Brandon Burton. Reggie Porter is coming off of an ACL tear, but looked good in spring. These guys are tremendous athletes with great instincts, which is what separates them from the rest of their teammates at the same position. Add nickel back Justin Thomas, whose physicality consistently re-routes receivers and lends tons of support in the run game, and the Utes should have one of the top 3 or 4 CB groups in the conference.
Hackett? Best in the business. Phillips? One of the best in the business. Find a decent returner and Utah's special teams will again win them games.
Units of Optimism
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