O’Connell: Biggest Worries, Highest Hopes For Utah College Football Teams
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – As I’ve tweeted previously, (@realocsports) I cannot recall a time in the Utah sports landscape where hopes are as universally high as they seem to be heading into the fall of 2019.
I could write this entire piece about the moves that the Utah Jazz made in their offseason, how the timing is perfect, and how the entire state of Utah is justifiably hyped for what’s to come when the new-look Jazz take the court in some old-look 90’s mountain throwbacks jerseys. I could spend a lot of time on that.
It’s football season. So, let’s talk about the reasons for hype (and concern) in each camp with the season fast approaching.
Utah State Aggies
Optimism is not always a theme when a team loses a head coach to a “better” job and is forced to scramble in replacement, but things are looking up in Logan because of the return of a man who is to be counted as among the best coaches in Aggie history. Gary Andersen is back, almost as if he never left, and though the Aggies will be fighting an uphill battle in his first season back in Logan, there is still plenty of reason to be excited.
Highest Hope – Jordan Love was given a lot of love in the preseason, picked to win Player of the Year and All-Conference honors, even tagged as a Heisman hopeful (though we all know that’s not realistic). When you couple a QB like that with a coach like Mike Sanford, the optimism feels justified.
Love has the talent of poise of a big-game-major-conference-future-NFL QB. Sanford’s resume makes him look overqualified to be calling plays in Cache Valley, if we’re being honest. He coordinated the third-most prolific offense in Notre Dame history in 2015 (yes, that Notre Dame) and has an impressive track record of maximizing the talent of peak players in his offense, regardless of whether they play his favored QB position or not. Expectations would already be high just because of Jordan Love’s talent, but the Love-Sanford marriage is the real reason to be optimistic.
Biggest Worry – So many news faces. I’m talking like… a whole half of the roster. Turnover is to be expected anytime a coaching change occurs, but the sheer volume of young guys and new Aggies that Utah State will be forced to rely on is enough to make every fan in Logan at least a little bit uneasy.
It’s not all bad though. A new-look roster might make the re-establishment of Gary Andersen’s football culture in Logan that much easier. Moreover, some of the new guys are transfers – JUCO and D-1 alike- with real ability. Former Utes WR Siaosi Mariner and DE Nick Heninger are absolute ballers. Caleb Repp has unlimited potential, but after about 21 position changes in his career, I’m not sure I expect much in terms of impact on the field at this point.
Maybe the most intriguing new guy is Jaylen Warren, an East High Leopard and one of the best running backs in the history of Utah high school football. He arrives at Utah State via Snow College, where last season he was named a junior college All-American and National Offensive Player of the Year. Factor in BYU transfer Riley Burt, and the Aggies could actually be more stacked in the offensive backfield than they were last season despite the loss of Darwin Thompson. Come to think of it… maybe all of those new faces aren’t such a big worry for Aggie fans after all…
The preseason hype train is always full-steam-ahead at BYU. Heading into 2019, I am torn as I try and decide whether to climb aboard. I truly believe this roster is more talented than we’ve seen in years at LaVell Edwards stadium, but with a nasty front-loaded schedule, the Cougars are going to have to come out firing on all cylinders if all of the promise is going to mean anything. We’ll get a good sense almost immediately, when the season starts with a Holy War matchup that is sure to test the limits of what this Cougar team can handle.
Highest Hope – The trenches. Most people are going to tell you that it’s all about Zach Wilson. BYU’s QB1 looks, sounds, and plays the part at a school judged almost exclusively by that position, but if BYU is going to be something this year, it’s because of the big boys. The offensive line is big, experienced, and nastier than one might expect from a group of returned-missionaries who may or may not have small children at home. Wilson will excel if he’s given clean pockets, passing lanes, and a supportive run game.
Empey, Hoge, Christensen and company will be pushed hard from week one, but they appear to be a group equipped to push back. This unit had 45,000-plus looking on incredulously last season for an entire half, at times pushing around a formidable Utah defensive front. If they can do the same for 4 quarters at home less than three weeks from now, they’ll shock the world.
Don’t forget the defensive line either. Khyiris Tonga would start at almost any school in the country. He’ll have a mixed-bag of talented newcomers around him, but with an uncertain future at the middle backer spot for the Cougars, Tonga, Pili, and at least one Kaufusi with his hand in the dirt will be more important than ever against the nastiness of BYU’s early schedule.
Biggest Worry – The schedule. Even if you wholeheartedly believe that this is the best BYU squad we’ve seen in half a decade and Zach Wilson is the next Steve Young, it’s going to be hard for Kalani Sitake’s team to prove they are better than they were a year ago.
Thankfully, the gauntlet begins at home, when the Cougars face an insane Holy War matchup against Utah. Win or lose against the Utes, BYU will have to shift focus immediately and get ready for back-to-back-to-back matchups against heritage football brands, all of whom come into 2019 loaded with talent and something to prove. There isn’t an obvious win on the board until week six.
Cougar fans are hungry for Power-5 inclusion in the near future, and 2019’s schedule is a taste of what that will look like. In a vacuum, this Cougar team looks promising, but the shine comes off a little when you realize just how tough the sledding is going to be. If this team can pull off a pair of upsets in the first 4 weeks, I’ll consider it a huge statement.
The familiar “nobody thinks you can do it” refrain that has motivated virtually every Utah football team in the history of the program no longer fits up on the Hill. Expectations for Utah football have never been higher, and likely never will be. Kyle Whittingham’s Utes are picked to win the Pac-12 Conference for the first time.
Various publications have named them as College Football Playoff “darkhorses” and a handful of Utes are being touted as potential NFL first-rounders. Respect and optimism from the national media is a welcome change, and a sign the progress that Whittingham and company have been promising since joining the Pac-12.
It’s also unfamiliar territory for fans, players, and coaches more accustomed to the underdog role. The long wait for expectations has given way to the weight of expectations for a program hungry for another moment in the sun.
Highest Hope – The Defensive Line. Utah football has been defined by its defensive front for going on three decades, so this comes as no shock. This year though, instead of the customary “Oh and Utah will be tough up front” nod that the group usually gets in preseason discussion, Phil Steele and others have Utah ranked above every single defensive line in the nation.
Depth is key for Morgan Scalley’s rotation along the line of scrimmage, and Kyle Whittingham has challenged us in the media not to find a better starting four, but a better TEN or ELEVEN guys in the country. Expect Anae and Fotu to lead the charge, but don’t be shocked if you see the Utes go into a true three-deep at D-line, especially during home games.
Small caveat here… It feels like a near certainty that Utah will be among the nation’s best run defenses, because they always are. But what will separate this unit from the pack (and Pac) and tell us if they are truly living up to their limitless potential will be the resurgence of the pass rush. It’s not a banner year, unless the “Sack Lake City” t-shirts are being printed.
Biggest Worry – Special teams. I can’t believe I am saying this… Let me just double check…. Yes… I actually do mean that Special Teams are my biggest worry when it comes to Utah living up to the lofty preseason expectations. Stylistically, Kyle Whittingham teams play multiple tough, hard-fought, one-score contests every season.
We’ve seen it in the Holy War, we’ve seen it on the road against Northern Illinois, and we’ve certainly seen it in conference play. In games like these, weapons like Hackett, Wishnowsky, and Gay are absolutely critical. Week two of Camp Kyle is underway and the grumblings of unimpressive kicker battles are impossible to ignore after the projected starter decided football was not going to be part of his future. Ben Lennon may very well be the next big Aussie thing, but he’s still unproven.
Utah football has depended on their kicking game more than most are comfortable admitting in recent years. And while we often gloss over the facts in favor of more glamorous discussion, it was the same in 2004 and 2008. People don’t remember names like Kovacevich and Carroll as much as they do Scalley and Smith, but those guys were huge for Urban Meyer and the Fiesta Bowl team.
King Louie Sakoda got plenty of love – deservedly so – as a staple for the Sugar Bowl squad. Of course last year’s Pac-12 runner-up group had All-American, national award winning, NFL draft picks at both punter and kicker. Safe to say that Utah’s best football teams have historically been comfortable with special-teams talent. The potential irony of a stellar 2019 campaign being spoiled by substandard Special Teams is almost too cruel to imagine.