It's game week (woo! finally!), and we at Maize n Brew have been and will continue to preview Michigan's season opener against Utah on Thursday. And what better way to add to that coverage than to provide Utah's perspective on the matchup? So we reached out to Alex Stark of SB Nation's Utah team site, Block U, and grilled him for his thoughts on the game. Will Devontae Booker break though Michigan's strong run defense? Is Utah's terrifying pass rush from last season ready for a sequel? How do Utes fans feel about Jim Harbaugh? And, most importantly, who will start the season with a 1-0 record? Those answers and more great insight will be found below. Enjoy the Q&A!
To see my thoughts on Michigan-Utah, you can find the Q&A I did over at Block U here.
After back-to-back 5-7 seasons in 2012 and 2013, Utah put together a very good season in 2014, posting a 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12) record that included a resounding win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl. One would expect the coaching staff to remain intact unless coaches were poached by other schools that could provide better opportunities. However, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen took a demotion to become the offensive line coach at Texas A&M and promising defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake agreed to take the same position at Oregon State, which most would argue is no better than a lateral move. Why did Christensen and Sitake flee Utah?
I think Kalani Sitake and Dave Christensen left for very different reasons. Sitake was very well liked within the program, and there was a strong push to try to retain him (he was even reportedly offered more money by Utah than OSU). Ultimately, I think the main reason Sitake left was his strong relationship with new OSU coach Gary Andersen, who was formerly the defensive coordinator at Utah. It seems like Sitake saw an opportunity to work with a coach he was incredibly close with and jumped at it. Christensen on the other hand was supposedly not well liked by many in the program. I think Christensen was also unhappy about not having as much control over the offense as he wanted. Overall, Christensen and Utah were just not a good fit, so he moved on to a different program, which was likely best for both sides.
How do Utah fans feel about the in-house promotion of Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding to co-offensive coordinator and the luring of 71-year-old John Pease out of retirement to become the defensive coordinator? Will Utah's philosophical approach on either side of the ball change with these moves or will it remain the same as 2014?
I think most Utah fans like the promotions of Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding and the hiring of John Pease. Roderick was co-OC previously in 2010 and Harding worked wonders with Utah's offensive line. Both are very capable coaches and will keep the same scheme and terminology from last year. Pease has a ton of experience and still has plenty of passion for the game despite his advanced age. In his first stint at Utah as defensive line coach in 2009-10, he coached multiple Utah defensive linemen who now play in the NFL including All-American Star Lotulelei. The defense, regardless of who is the defensive coordinator, will schematically stay pretty much the same because it is Kyle Whittingham's defense. As long as he is Utah's head coach, Utah will continue to play good, hard-nosed defense. Overall, I do not expect Utah's scheme to change much at all on offense or defense in 2015.
Alright, let's talk about the players. Last season, Utah deployed two quarterbacks: Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson. Wilson started 11 of Utah's 13 games and produced the better numbers (2170 passing yards, 18:5 TD:INT ratio, five rushing scores), but Thompson started against Oregon before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in the first quarter. Does Utah plan to use both quarterbacks against Michigan?
The Utah coaching staff has not said much about the quarterbacks. Only Whittingham has talked about it much at all and has said it is Travis Wilson's job to lose. He is still atop the depth chart, but beyond that, no one really knows what Utah plans to do. One other name to know is redshirt freshman Chase Hansen. He saw a lot of reps in spring and fall camp and moved up to third on the depth chart, but his athleticism may get him on the field some in special situations a la Wilson very early in his freshman season, but that is pure speculation.
Week 1: Michigan-Utah Coverage
Week 1: Michigan-Utah Coverage
Michigan had one of the best run-stuffing defenses last season (8th in the nation in S&P+) and is expected to rank well in that category again this season. Utah returns running back Devontae Booker, who was the Pac-12's second-leading rusher in 2014 with 1,512 yards on a Pac-12-most 292 carries. Booker threw in 10 rushing touchdowns and two receiving scores for good measure, too. However, because Booker had so many touches, his YPC (5.18) was fine but only 15th in the conference. As a result, Utah's run offense ranked 79th in S&P+. Plus, he had his worst rushing performance last season against Michigan (11 carries, 34 yards). Booker seems to be a bell cow that could be more efficient. How much will Utah's offense be reliant on Booker? Do you expect him to have a vastly improved performance against the Wolverines this time around?
The performance Devontae Booker had against Michigan last season is not indicative of what he is capable of as a running back. It was not until the Washington State game (the week after Michigan) that Booker established himself as the starter. Through the first three games in 2014, Booker saw only 31 carries, as he split reps at running back with 2013 starter Bubba Poole (who is now playing slot receiver for Utah). Utah started to rely more and more on Booker as the season went on last year. Michigan can expect to see a much heavier dose of Booker than the 11 carries they saw in the 2014 meeting. Booker is the focal point of the Utah offense in the 2015 season both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. He is a big back with very good speed and great hands. Michigan figures to have a very good rushing defense, but they will have their hands full with Booker on Sept. 3.
The biggest question mark on Utah's offense is its receiving corps. The Utes lost three of their four top receivers: Kaelin Clay (43 rec., 523 yards), Westlee Tonga (30 rec., 391 yards), and Dres Anderson (22 rec., 355 yards in seven games). Booker will be one of the best receiving running backs in the nation (42 rec., 311 yards in 2014), but Kenneth Scott is the only returning Utah receiver that had more than 200 receiving yards last year (49 rec., 501 yards). And Scott was only a possession receiver. Can Scott be a more explosive threat? Do the Utes have anyone else to whom they can throw the football?
The receiving corps was a huge concern for Utah heading into fall camp, but a few newcomers have really excelled. Receiver is much less of a concern for me than it was in July or early August. Names to keep an eye on are true freshman Britain Covey, JuCo transfer Kyle Fulks, and Bubba Poole (the former running back) at the slot receiver. They each bring something different to the table. Covey has video game shiftiness in the open field, Fulks has blazing speed (10.2 100-meters in high school), and Poole has a nice combination of speed, size, and moves in the open field.
Kenneth Scott is more of a possession receiver, but he is a good one. With his basketball background, he is excellent at high pointing the football, and he has great hands. With his size and skill, he presents a match up problem with smaller defensive backs. Scott is in his final season at Utah and figures to have his best year. One last receiver to know is Tim Patrick. He was just starting to hit his stride last season when he suffered a season-ending leg injury against Oregon. Patrick is a big receiver (at 6'5") and has good speed for his size. He figures to play a big role in the passing game this year.
Lastly, as you mentioned, Booker is a great receiving running back. He showed great hands last year and was dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield. With the losses at receiver this year, I expect Booker will again be a factor in the passing game. Utah is not a team that wants to the throw the ball all over the field. They will likely only throw the ball enough to keep the defense honest and will pound the ball with Booker.
Let's move to the defense. No team in the nation had a better pass-rushing defensive line in 2014 than Utah. The Utes led the nation in sacks (a whopping 4.23 per game) and owned the best sack rate in the nation on obvious passing downs. Simply, if an offense put itself behind the chains, that offense was in big, big trouble against Utah. But Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki departed for Oregon State, and stud defensive end Nate Orchard (18.5 sacks in 2014 -- second in the nation) is in Cleveland with the Browns. Nonetheless, Utah still returns defensive end Hunter Dimick (14.5 TFL, 10 sacks), defensive end Jason Fanaika (9.5 TFL, five sacks), and nose tackle Lowell Lotulelei (4.5 TFL, four sacks), as well as many other contributors. Is it possible for this defensive line to be as much of a kamikaze swarm as it was in 2014?
"Kamikaze swarm" I love that term to describe Utah's defensive line! The short answer is yes, I believe this year's defensive line could be special as well. Hunter Dimick, Jason Fanaika, and Lowell Lotulelei are the big name guys for good reason. In addition to them, Utah has a ton of depth and talent. UCLA transfer defensive end Kylie Fitts looked like a stud in the offseason and could have a big year this year. Utah has a lot of talent at defensive tackle in addition to Lotulelei with guys like Filipo Mokofisi, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, and Viliseni Fauonuku, who will all see a lot of playing time in Utah's defensive line rotation. Last, a player to keep an eye on is defensive end Pita Taumoepenu. He had 4 sacks last season, mostly in obvious passing situations. He was undersized last season but was very quick off the edge. He has added good weight this offseason and maintained his quickness. He could be a terrifying pass rush specialist for Utah this season.
Like Michigan, Utah has three returning senior starters at linebacker, including run-stuffer Jared Norris. However, the questions in the back seven lie in the secondary, specifically the corners. Despite having the best pass rush in the nation last season, Utah ranked only 41st in S&P+ on passing downs, which indicates that, if Utah's pass rush didn't get home, quarterbacks generally connected with open receivers. Not only is this a concern, Utah will not have its top three corners from last season in the opener against Michigan. Eric Rowe and Davion Orphey graduated, while Dominique Hatfield remains indefinitely suspended after he was arrested on charges of armed robbery. Who fills in for those three against the Wolverines? Will they have trouble against an unproven receiving corps. from Michigan that likely lacks a deep threat?
Cornerback, like receiver was a concern heading into fall camp with Dominique Hatfield getting dismissed from the team (though there is a chance for reinstatement at some point). However, Utah's corners have been very impressive this fall. Utah gets back cornerback Reggie Porter who missed all of last season and safety Tevin Carter who missed much of last season (Carter recorded two interceptions last season, including one against Michigan in only four games). Porter would have been a starter in 2014 had he not suffered an injury very early in fall camp 2014. He has shown this fall why he would have been a starter. Utah has a history of putting defensive backs into the NFL, and Porter looks like the next great Utah cornerback. Carter is big, physical, and fast. He has a knack for creating turnovers and is dynamic with the ball in his hands, returning one of his two interceptions for a touchdown against UCLA. Once Carter went down, teams were able to create more big plays over the top.
Utah also added talented JuCo transfer cornerback Cory Butler-Byrd. Butler-Byrd has received rave reviews so far this fall. Utah also gets Justin Thomas back at nickel corner. Thomas is good in coverage and tough against the run. Safety Marcus Williams saw a lot of playing time last season as a true freshman after Carter went down. That experience was invaluable for his development. He was susceptible to the big play last season but looks much better as a sophomore. Getting players like Carter and Porter back and adding Butler-Byrd has given the Utah secondary a huge boost.
I think they could give an unproven Michigan wide receiving corps trouble, especially if Michigan lacks a deep threat. Utah's defense has proven to be stout against power running/pro-style teams like Stanford, so the lack of a deep threat could prove problematic for Michigan.
There were many reasons Michigan lost to Utah last season, but a main one was special teams. Andy Phillips made 4-of-5 field goals, all of which were at least 35 yards long, including one from 48 and another from 50. Michigan decided to put only 10 men on the punt coverage team, and Clay made them pay with a 66-yard touchdown return. Oh, and Tom Hackett, who won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's best punter, flipped field position on Michigan all day. It was a shellacking in that department. And all but Clay are back. Let me guess: Utah will kick ass on special teams again this year, huh?
Yes, Utah figures to be one of the best teams in special teams again this season. Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips are such underrated weapons for the Utah football team. Phillips is a team captain for Utah, and Hackett is the best punter in the nation. Kaelin Clay was a big loss in the return game, but Utah has a history of producing great return men, including Clay, Reggie Dunn (who had five career 100-yard kickoff return touchdowns, including four in one season), and Shaky Smithson (who had multiple punt return touchdowns in his career). Utah adds players like Butler-Byrd, Covey, and Fulks, who all have the ability to be dynamic return men and continue Utah's tradition of excellent return men.
You may have heard, but Michigan hired this guy named "Jim Harbaugh" to be its new football coach. The media may have talked about him a bit here and there in the offseason, and FOX Sports may have dressed a bus used to promote the Michigan-Utah opener in his signature look. Do Utah fans resent Harbaugh at all due to the fact that it seems like he has overshadowed media coverage of this game for months?
I think Utah fans love the attention this game is getting. Playing in the West and not being named USC or Oregon has caused Utah to get overlooked by the national media. This game, with all the media fanfare surrounding Harbaugh's return to college football, offers Utah a great opportunity to impress voters around the nation. It will likely be the most watched game ever broadcasted from Rice-Eccles Stadium, which gives Utah a great opportunity to show the nation what the program is about, and I don't think any fan can resent that. Honestly, I think Utah fans are still more mad at Harbaugh for benching Alex Smith (maybe you heard, Utah is going to have some Alex Smith faces in the crowd for the game) than for all the media coverage he is getting.
From what I have seen on social media, Utah fans seem very confident about its chances to beat Michigan on Thursday. So much so, in fact, that Michigan writers and fans that have predicted the Wolverines to win have been dubbed "homers" by Utes fans. I wouldn't necessarily call them homers, but, yes, Utah is at home and is a 5.5-point favorite. Are you as confident about Utah's chances to win as the rest of the fan base seems to be? What is your prediction for Thursday? Who wins? What's the score?
At BlockU, we do a weekly podcast, and last week we did our season win-loss predictions. All of us at BlockU picked Utah to beat Michigan. Harbaugh is a great coach, and Michigan has a lot of talent, but I like Utah at home in the season opener. I think it will take more time than the first game for Harbaugh to really implement his schemes at Michigan. Utah has a huge advantage on special teams that is a great talent equalizer. I also think the atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium will be the best it has ever been, and I think that will help propel Utah to the win. I see the game as a tough hard-fought game for the first three quarters with Utah pulling away a bit behind Booker in the fourth quarter, winning something like 31-17.
One last question before you go: for the Michigan fans that will be in attendance on Thursday, like myself, what must we do while in Salt Lake City? Are there any places that we must visit? Are there restaurants or bars at which we must eat or drink?
There are many great restaurants in Salt Lake City. You can get great diner food (Ruth's), Mexican food (Red Iguana), barbecue (Pat's), Middle Eastern (Mazza), and much more. Squatters is a great brewery/restaurant as well. If you like whiskey, I highly recommend trying High West, which is made in Park City, Utah. It may not be the greatest pizza, but the Pie is the quintessential Utah pizza and is very, very close to campus. The Park Cafe is a great place to get breakfast as is Eggs in the City. If you like the outdoors, there is plenty to see in Utah with the Great Salt Lake (and Antelope Island), Emigration Canyon, and all of the ski resorts (which sadly are not open in September) offer great hiking in early September, and there are several chair lifts open at the ski lifts which offer great views. Main Street in Park City is a really fun place to visit and is only about a half hour outside of Salt Lake City. Even if you are not Mormon, seeing Temple Square is something to consider seeing as well.
Thanks to Alex for answering our questions! Follow him on Twitter at @starkaw23.