Dec. 31, 2011; El Paso, TX, USA; Teammates swarm Utah Utes running back John White IV (bottom of pile) after scoring a touchdown to beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 30-27 in overtime during the 2011 Sun Bowl at Sun Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Dark Horse Diaries: Utah Trending Upward In Year 2

There’s a heckuva lot better athletes and level of play. There’s no doubt about that, and that’s what we expected. We’re not sitting here surprised and thinking we didn’t expect this.

- Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, Oct. 25, 2011

You could say we underestimated the Pac-12 a little bit.

- Defensive tackle Dave Kruger, the same day

Nov. 19, 2011; Pullman, WA, USA; Utah Utes running back John White (15) celebrates a touchdown against the Washington State Cougars during the second half at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-US PRESSWIRE

Utah’s actual internal perception leading to its transition to the Pac-12 probably lies somewhere between the two sentiments. Had UU come to its new conference with something of an inflated self esteem, it’s understandable. Whittingham was a respectable 3-3 against Pac-10 teams before 2011, had three straight seasons of at least 10 wins, and four straight of nine-plus. Only two-time defending conference champion Oregon could stake claim to a run as successful over that same time span.

However, the truth is Pac-12 programs recruit from more talented pools than the Utes’ former compatriots in the Mountain West. Early into the league slate, the Utes just looked a few weight room reps smaller and a half-step slower than their new conference mates en route to an 0-4 start.

But as a great coach does, Whittingham adjusted. UU finished the year much stronger than it began, winning five of its final six including a thrilling Sun Bowl. The overtime defeat of Georgia Tech should serve as a springboard for UU to pull off a feat of Triple Lindy-esque proportions — winning the Pac-12 South.

Would-be soothsayers have already handed over that crown to USC in a race that was apparently decided in December 2011. Matt Barkley’s announced return for a senior season refilled the Trojan bandwagon that had briefly come with ample leg room.

A hurdle to the Trojans’ return to glory not getting national play as of now — that could change come the season — is an October 4 date at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes played USC to the final possession last season at the Coliseum. This one has all the makings of a Trap Game. Further adding to the signifance is some of the Utes’ most famous victories in the last few seasons have come on weeknights: the field goal to beat Oregon State. The blackout and comeback vs. TCU. Something special should be in store that night, and would put UU in the driver’s seat of the division out of the gate.

A team like USC has more noteworthy names than the Utes. Jordan Wynn returns to quarterbacking duties from an injury. Wynn has had flashes of brilliance between stretches of simple consistency, but staying healthy has been a major concern. compared him to Mr. Glass from Unbreakable.

For the first time since roughly the Nixon administration, UU will not have an Asiata on the roster.

But while others around the league may garner more attention, there is no better running back in the Pac than Utah’s John White. He rushed for over 1500 yards and scored 15 touchdowns last season. When Jon Hays took over for Wynn, the offense became far more reliant on White. He responded, and was the primary reason the Utes came on so strong down the stretch. Should UU jump into the conference fray, White has dark horse Heisman candidacy potential.

October 15, 2011; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Utah Utes defensive backs Eric Rowe (left) and Mo Lee (5) break up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Panthers receiver Devin Street (15) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Utah won 26-14. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

An intriguing facet of the Utes’ look will be Brian Johnson’s leadership as offensive coordinator. The Utah team Johnson captained to a perfect season and Sugar Bowl victory was somewhat reminiscent of last year’s version: not the most explosively offensive but steady, and keyed by a good defense. Johnson was handed play calling duties in the Utes’ defeat of Alabama by then-OC Andy Ludwig. Against Alabama’s juggernaut defense, Utah had its best offensive game of the campaign, moving quickly to the line and showing some more risk.

Should Johnson combine the same mindset with Johnson’s ability to grind down opposing defenses, UU could have an offensive dynamic more akin to the Urban Meyer era. Wynn’s not Alex Smith, but a talented and experienced receiving corps of DeVante Christopher, Dres Anderson and Luke Matthews could help him a little more similar.

The offense may need to actually buoy the defense initially, until former reserves settle into starting roles. The Utes allowed the 19th fewest PPG in 2011 despite the rough start. After giving up 34 in a drubbing vs. Cal, Utah did not allow another team to reach 30. Included was holding the potent Georgia Tech option a full touchdown below its season average. A ton of production from last year’s group is gone, including sacks leader Derrick Shelby, interceptions leader Conroy Black and overall tackles leader Chaz Walker.

The secondary returns the most experience, namely Ryan Lacy, Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe. Rowe is a particularly noteworthy name, having garnered FWAA Freshmen All-American honors. He and Lacy are hawks in coverage, having combined for 22 passes broken up.

Fleshing out the linebacking corps will prove Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake’s big challenge. Trevor Reilly returns as an anchor, but Dave Fagergren is the unit’s sole senior and he played sparingly. It’s a very young pool from which to select.

Good news for UU on that front is after a year of Pac-12 experience to its credit, the learning curve will be much less steep.

Tags: Brian Johnson John White Kyle Whittingham Utah Utes

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