WSU in Week 5: Utah

A SHAKEUP IN the offensive coaching staff at Utah this offseason means the Cougs are likely to face a different Utes squad when they travel to Salt Lake City in Week 5.

Utah has a new offensive coordinator, plus offensive line and wide receivers coaches. And Kyle Whittingham is adding special teams coordinator to his head coaching role.

New OC Dave Christensen says he won't change too much but some change is inevitable. And Utah has changed or added co-offensive coordinators every year they've been in the Pac-12, and in six of the last six seasons.

The biggest change this spring was to decrease the two tight-end sets in favor of more two-back. Utah under Christensen is expected to increase tempo and run more read-option. And the natural progression of that as defenses move to stop the option probably means more tunnel and front side stop screens. The question is how well their QBs can execute it in 2014.

Travis Wilson, expected to be fully cleared medically later this month, had a so-so spring. Connor Manning and Adam Schultz are both vying for the job. And no one QB stood out this spring, with both bad and good on display from all.

All three can run, and with Wilson, it's what he does best. But too many interceptions, poor decisions and an inability to gain enough first downs has plagued Utah the past two seasons. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson arrives later this summer but played only sparingly in a couple games last season.

FANS CAN grudgingly accept down times when there's reason to believe next year will be better. And although Utah lost some close ones last year and shocked Stanford, their conference records the past three campaigns have steadily declined at 4-5, 3-6 and 2-7.

There hasn't been anything this offseason or spring to indicate Utah has completed its arduous Pac-12 transition and is now ready to challenge for a division crown.

Utah does have decent o-line depth, a very good wideout in Dres Anderson and an intriguing running backs group. RB Devontae Booker, who originally signed with WSU, will make his Pac-12 debut this season and his addition has spurred on Bubba Poole, who remains the starter. Dennis Erickson will coach the 'backs this season, after serving as co-offensive coordinator last year.

DEFENSIVELY, UTAH was injury plagued this spring, especially at defensive tackle and linebacker, the latter holding suspect depth.

They operate out of a 4-3 defense and while the secondary should be better, they're not expected to improve dramatically over a unit last year that posted a conference-low three interceptions.

Moving Brian Blechen back to safety and Eric Rowe to corner should help, but Utah has some holes to fill in the secondary.

Up front, Utah looks a bit undersized but defensive end Pita Taumoepenu could become a productive pass rusher and Seni Fauonuku can plug up some holes inside. Still, the front could be the strength of the defense -- but there's a caveat.

Utah's strength both up front and on defense as a whole is against the run, particularly between the tackles. And Washington State won't be slamming it up the gut against Utah or anyone else, they'll find their success through the air.

There just aren't as many teams who emphasize a straight-ahead run game anymore. As a result, Utah has slipped back into the middle of the Pac-12 in the scoring defense stat over the past two seasons.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Utah operates out of the spread on offense, with a 4-3 base defense. They have 11 starters returning -- six on offense, five on defense, plus their punter and kicker, both of whom are solid. K Andy Phillips booted a 59-yard field goal in spring ball.

  • Last season, Utah was 11th in the Pac-12 in first downs and 10th in 3rd-down conversions (34.2 percent).

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