Football: Utes prepare for bright season

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Head coach Kyle Whittingham and the U football team weren’t exactly satisfied with how the 2007 season turned out. However, considering the hand they were dealt, maybe they should be content with the outcome.

The Utes found themselves in an early hole — both health- and record-wise — after their opener against Oregon State. Starting running back Matt Asiata suffered a broken leg, starting quarterback Brian Johnson separated his shoulder and the U just came up short with backups Tommy Grady and Ray Stowers running the show.

The tough luck continued the following week when the Utes came up on the short end of a goal-line stand against Air Force.

With crippling injuries already riddling a bulk of the team, the season outlook was shoddy at best. The Utes bounced back with an impressive victory over then-No. 11 UCLA, but found themselves right back in the same hole when they lost to conference cellar-dweller UNLV.

Then came the return of Johnson and the emergence of running back Darrell Mack. Johnson battled through shoulder pain and Mack piled up the rushing yardage and the result was an eight-game winning streak.

Utah ended the season on a relatively passive note — losing a close game in the final seconds to BYU, then edging out Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.

The Utes dealt with a rough run of injuries to starters throughout the season, but time and time again the team’s depth and talented younger classes bailed them out. Eight of the Utes’ 22 starting spots on offense and defense in the Poinsettia Bowl were filled by either freshmen or sophomores.

Additionally, six juniors started in the season finale and many underclassmen started, or were significant contributors, during the season.

That, coupled with the fact that numerous key players were out for the 2007 season, bodes well for the Utes’ future.

“It’s hard not to get excited about next year when you look at how much talent is going to be back,” said Utah defensive end Paul Kruger, who will be a sophomore next year. “We’re losing a couple key guys, but we have a lot returning.”

Among those who will be lost to graduation are All-Mountain West Conference defenders Steve Tate and Martail Burnett.

Tate’s probable replacement next year, sophomore safety Joe Dale, made the game-winning interception against Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. Joining him in the defensive backfield will likely be cornerbacks R.J. Stanford and Brice McCain, as well as free safety Robert Johnson.

Utah’s defensive fronts even took a serious hit — losing four starters — but still hold plenty of experience.

On the offensive end, the Utes will bid farewell to starting wide receivers Brian Hernandez and Derrek Richards, but thanks to incoming and returning talent, the depth at wide receiver will be strong once again in 2008. Soon-to-be seniors Freddie Brown, Bradon Godfrey and slashing wideout/running back Brent Casteel will be back, in addition to young up-and-comer Jereme Brooks.

The Utes will lose a key part of their offensive line in center Kyle Gunther, but will retain the other four starters. Sophomore Zane Taylor will fill Gunther’s void as the focal point of the line.

The backfield is where the bulk of Utah’s talent resides, though. The cerebral quarterback Johnson returns, and Whittingham will have a nice second option in sophomore Corbin Louks. At running back is a stable of talent, including the 1,000-yard rusher Mack and bruising runner Asiata.

“As far as talent goes, the sky is the limit for this team,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of young contributors and guys who are coming off injuries, so it’s going to be an exciting year.”

In addition to the returning talent, the Utes also have a wide breadth of offensive newcomers. Eleven of the 15 players who signed to play at the U this fall are offensive players, and two more could play either offense or defense.

“You recruit based on needs, and we felt the need to get certain positions filled on offense,” Whittingham said. “We held true to our philosophy of recruiting the best players, regardless of position, and we became a more athletic team with this class.”

Giving size to an already talented U receiving corps are juco transfers Aiona Key (6-4, 209 lbs.) and David Reed (6-foot, 184 lbs.), as well as high school athletes Kendrick Moeai (6-5, 200 lbs.) and Luke Matthews (6-1, 205 lbs.).

Perhaps, the biggest additions came in the positions where the Utes are already stocked with talent. Freshman DeVonte’ Christopher has gotten plenty of time at quarterback this spring while Johnson and Louks are on the mend and has proven himself a viable asset. In the Utes’ Red-White game Saturday, Christopher ran the ball for 84 yards, and Whittingham made comparisons between him and former West Virginia slashing quarterback Pat White.

“(Christopher) is obviously raw, but he has a lot of talent,” Whittingham said. “He has big-play capabilities. He’s going to be a good one in the future.”

Joining Christopher in the “talented future” category is fellow recruit Sausan Shakerin of Alta High School. The 6-foot-2, 208-lb. tailback, who ran for 2,245 yards and 29 touchdowns his junior year, might see time this season, Whittingham said.

The Utes will need all of the talent they can get in 2008 as they face a difficult yet feasible schedule. Whittingham and Co. will begin the season with the unenviable task of facing Michigan in the famed Big House. The Wolverines are dealing with quite a bit of turnover because departing seniors and a new coaching regime, but as one of the most storied franchises in college football history, the Utes still have their work cut out for them.

The rest of the Utah schedule works in its favor, with home games against Oregon State, BYU and TCU and road games against conference patsies Wyoming and San Diego State.

With the ideal schedule and returning talent, the Utes appear to be headed for good things in 2008.

“We’re not satisfied with what we did (last) season,” Whittingham said. “It was a nice season, but our expectations and aspirations are to win a Mountain West Conference championship, and we didn’t do that.”

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Utah defensive end Paul Kruger is just one of many returning starters for the U football team next season.