Football team getting back to work

By Bryan Chouinard, Asst. Sports Editor

After being the defensive coordinator for the 2004 Fiesta Bowl-winning Utes, leading Utah to its second undefeated season in five years and pummeling the highly favored Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, what is it that head coach Kyle Whittingham told his team at the beginning of Spring Football?

Time to get back to work.

“Since spring football, we have taken the mentality that last year was a great season and a great accomplishment,” Whittingham said. “But it’s time to move on and focus on challenges that lie ahead, and our team did a great job responding to that.”

There are numerous challenges that face the Utah coaching staff, even before the season starts. With only four returning starters coming back on offense and seven on defense, Whittingham and his coaching staff have the task of replacing Paul Kruger, Sean Smith, Freddie Brown and Brent Casteel, not to mention quarterback Brian Johnson.

“Brian Johnson was our team leader,” Whittingham said. “There’s no doubt about that. We had a lot of guys with great leadership skills last year and now it’s time for other guys to step up.”

With Johnson gone, it has been a three-man race between junior college transfer Terrance Cain, true freshman Jordan Wynn and Corbin Louks, the only quarterback on the roster with experience in the program, to fill the shoes of the winningest quarterback in Utah history.

“The main emphasis in fall camp will be to get the quarterback situation solidified,” Whittingham said. “We have three very good candidates, but in the end, we can’t have three; we need one.”

Early on, Louks seemed to be the obvious choice simply because of his experience in the program. Louks appeared in nine games last season and finished the year as the team’s third leading rusher with 223 net rushing yards. The California native led the team in yards per carry, averaging 8.1 yards every time he was given the ball.

“Corbin has the slight edge,” Whittingham said. “But it will be anyone’s position to win this fall, it’s going to be a great competition. I believe competition always brings out the best in people and it’s going to be interesting to watch those guys compete with each other.”

Cain transferred to the U last season from Blinn College in Texas where the junior excelled, leading the NJCAA in passing yards, completions and touchdowns on his way to being named an NJCAA First Team All-American as well as the NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year. Cain is one of seven junior college transfers the Utes signed as a part of the 24 signees who committed to the program this year.

Wynn, another member of the 2009 signing class, graduated from Oceanside High School in California early last year to attend the U in the spring and improved greatly during spring ball to get his name into the conversation for the starting quarterback job.

“In spring ball, all three of our quarterbacks got better,” Whittingham said. “It was a situation where we went into spring ball with Corbin as our No. 1 just because of his experience in the program. But as the spring progressed, that battle got tighter and tighter, not because Corbin didn’t play well, because he did; everyone played well. The strides Terrence Cain and Jordan Wynn made were very impressive and at the end of the spring, it was neck and neck.”

As far as the rest of the offense is concerned, not only is Dave Schramm in his first year as offensive coordinator, but Utah also graduated its three leading wide receivers in Brown, Casteel and Bradon Godfrey. Even with these three gone, Whittingham believes that not only will this year’s receivers, led by senior David Reed, be as good as last year’s group8212;they could be better.

“I believe we have a good chance to be even better this year than we were last year at that position,” he said. “We have a lot of talented guys in that receiving corps and it’s their time. Freddie, Brent Casteel and Bradon Godfrey were the lead guys last year, but now it’s time for this group to step up.”

With all the turnovers on the offensive side of the ball, the core of the offense has remained intact. The Utes will return four starters on their starting line, including first-team all-conference selection Zane Beadles at left tackle, as well as center Zane Taylor, left guard Caleb Schlauderaff and tight end Chris Joppru.

Possibly the biggest loss to the Utah offense might not have been an offensive player at all. For the first time in four years, the Utes will be forced to open a season without special teams standout Louie Sakoda, and it will be up to kicker Ben Vroman to fill the big shoes left by the All-American.

“We almost took Louie for granted,” Whittingham said. “Four years of All-American punting and place kicking kind of spoiled us.”

Although Sakoda was an offensive weapon with his place-kicking, he was just as much a defensive weapon with his punting and even though the offense lost some major cornerstones, the defense did as well in NFL draftees such as Kruger, Brice McCain and Smith.

Although Utah will be forced to start two new players at cornerback, first-year defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will have the luxury of having Stevenson Sylvester back at linebacker, Koa Misi at defensive end and Robert Johnson and Joe Dale at the safety positions. The coaching staff is also excited about the arrival of James Aiono, another junior college transfer at the defensive end position. Aiono was the No. 1 junior college recruit in the country in 2008 according to Rivals.com and will help soften the impact of losing Kruger.

Once the Utah coaching staff answers all its personnel questions for the upcoming season, then the real challenge begins8212;navigating through one of the toughest schedules in the program’s recent history.

Utah will not only travel to Mountain West Conference powerhouses such as BYU and TCU, but also to Eugene, Ore., to take on the Oregon Ducks and face Louisville at home.
“It’s a tough schedule,” Whittingham said. “We have a trip up to Autzen Stadium to play Oregon, which is always a tough place to play, and we got BYU and TCU on the road, so we’ll have some challenges, but so does everyone else in the country.”

[email protected]