Questions abound for marquee athletic programs

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

The whole state of Utah seems to be clamoring to discover whether Jazz newbie Morris Almond is a diamond in the rough or just another late first-round dud.

The Jazz aren’t the only local sports entity with unanswered questions that could play a huge role in their future success.

The U athletic department has a few of its own — and the mysteries there are a lot weightier than whether or not a backup two-guard is going to pan out.

Over the past couple of years, Utah’s two big-money programs — football and men’s basketball — have been on the decline, and the Utes now find themselves standing on the edge of a rocky slope. They can either stumble downward or they can grab on to well-rooted weeds along the ledge and pull themselves back up to respectability.

Three monumental questions await Utah. How these questions are answered will determine whether the Utes will find themselves back on top of the Mountain West Conference or if they’ll descend further into MWC mediocrity. At this point in mid-July, there are no answers — just a long spectrum of possibility. At one end of the spectrum, there is hope; at the other end, fear.

Do-or-die questions:

1. Will Jim Boylen be the answer to the Runnin’ Utes’ woes?

There have been some dark, gloomy days in the Huntsman Center over the past few seasons. Ray Giacoletti’s defensive scheme — if you want to call it that — crippled Utah’s chances of competing, even in the relatively weak MWC. The whole debacle ended with Giacoletti fleeing town last March with his tail between his legs.

Perhaps the biggest stumper on campus is whether Boylen, a 41-year-old veteran NBA assistant, will be able to turn the program around — and if so, how long it will take. Introducing Boylen, who served as an assistant with the Houston Rockets during their back-to-back championships during the mid-’90s, has given the Runnin’ Utes a fresh start.

At this point, anything that’ll put a smile on Ute fans’ faces is welcome after they spent last winter watching their team struggle to an 11-19 record and a sixth-place league finish.

2. Will Brian Johnson be able to bounce back from his knee surgery for a productive year?

Brian Johnson has been issued a second chance. Countless athletes have suffered injuries similar to Johnson’s ligament tear and have never been given another shot to show what they’re made of because — while they were sidelined — their backup surpassed them on the depth chart (just ask Brett Elliott).

Johnson, who has been named to a number of preseason watch lists, led MWC quarterbacks in pass efficiency and total offense in 2005 — his true sophomore season. Then his knee made horrible crunching sounds and suddenly, his career was in jeopardy — and so was the Utah football program. ?

If Johnson has a breakout year, the Utes might find themselves right back on track. A disappointing year could make the Fiesta Bowl season seem like ancient history.

3. Will Kyle Whittingham be able to make his third year the charm?

Whether or not Whittingham will be able to improve on his pair of five-loss seasons is up for debate.

Urban Meyer set the bar high and now Ute fans have had a taste of the good life, and there’s no going back to the days when simply beating BYU meant the season was termed a success.

It’s possible that the upcoming season will be Whittingham’s last chance to ensure his job security, which he’ll be able to do if he proves he can make quality game-time decisions, as well as find a way to motivate his troops.

With all these questions up in the air, it’s hard to predict what will become of Ute athletics over the next few years.

One thing is clear: The consequences are steep.

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