2016 season preview: Utah Utes
The Utes lost significant offensive production from last season with the departures of starting quarterback Travis Wilson, starting running back Devontae Booker and leading receiver Britain Covey. Luckily, the Utes’ are a defensive-minded team and their defensive line is one of the better returning units in the country.
The Utes have some major question marks on offense after losing so much production on that side of the ball. There is a three-way quarterback competition going into fall camp with Brandon Cox, Tyler Huntley and Troy Williams all vying to replace veteran quarterback Travis Wilson. The Utes will have to use a running back by committee approach to replace departed Devontae Booker’s production. Running back Troy McCormick is returning from injury but displayed impressive open-field running ability on his limited snaps in 2014. 6-foot-5 wide receiver Tim Patrick is the Utes’ most physically impressive skill player and the coaches are hoping he will be healthy enough to finally play up to his size and potential. The Utes have talented run blockers on the offensive line, tackle J.J. Dielman’s +16.3 run-blocking grade ranks No. 7 among returning FBS tackles and guard Isaac Asiata’s +14.5 run-blocking grade ranks No. 13 among returning FBS guards.
Under Coach Wittingham the identity of the team has been the physical play-style of the front-seven on defense. The defensive ends can rush the quarterback, Kylie Fitts’s +19.3 pass rush grade and Hunter Dimick’s +7.3 ranks No.1 and No. 3 respectively among returning Pac-12 edge defenders. DE Pita Taumoepenu is a highly effective pass rusher who just needs more snaps. JUCO transfer DE Kendall Huey was incredibly disruptive as an edge-rusher in their spring game and should provide an instant impact. The defensive tackles are stout run defenders, Lowell Lotulei’s +14.3 run defense grade ranks No. 3 among returning Pac-12 interior defensive linemen. Filipo Mokofisi has back-to-back seasons with positive run defense grades. Their linebacking corps was decimated by departures and younger players are going to need to emerge.
The Utes’ secondary is loaded with talent. Starting cornerback Reginald Porter had their best coverage grade (+3.0), while cornerback Dominique Hatfield is talented but needs to become more consistent. Free safety Marcus Williams is an impact player on the backend and his 137.0 coverage snaps per reception allowed ranks No. 1 among all returning FBS safeties.
Defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei has a playing style similar to his older brother Star Lotulei, the former Ute and current Super Bowl champion Carolina Panther. Lowell and Star both excel as run defenders and Lowell’s 8.2 run stop percentage ranks No. 6 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles. Lowell has shown flashes of pass-rush ability but not consistently — if he can improve on his pass rush ability he could greatly enhance his draft stock.
Breakout player to watch
Senior PFF Analyst Steve Palazzolo always keeps a keen eye out for players who produce at a high-rate on limited snaps and has highlighted defensive end Pita Taumoepenu as one of the top 25 breakout candidates players for 2016. Taumoepenu is an undersized rotational pass rusher with an array of moves, including a deadly inside spin. His 18.3 pass rush productivity rating ranks No.1 among returning FBS 4-3 defensive ends and he should see an increase in production with increased snaps in 2016.
The Utes’ defense will be strong enough to keep them in games in 2016 and will be anchored by one of the best defensive lines in the country. Utah can compete for a Pac-12 South title if the offense can overcome the loss of production and continuity caused by the departures of key skill players and a three-way QB competition.