With fall camp wrapped up and the start of a new season rapidly approaching, it is time to look back and see if the questions asked heading into camp have been answered. While many of the questions can't be fully explored until the season wraps up, there are things to be learned by going back and asking if we gained more insight on the state of the team during the past three weeks.
Will Asiata live up to the hype?
At this point, the answer in only time will tell. Matt Asiata suffered a foot sprain in the first week of camp and did not participate in live drills the rest of the time. While he was sidelined, he spent his time watching the offense and trying to pick up as much as possible without actually taking reps. Before the injury, Asiata showed a powerful, downhill running style that will help open up the option game provided he can fully recover and stay healthy. Asiata might require a few games to fully adjust to the speed of Division I football, but he has flashed the tools to become a very effective back and live up to the tradition of successful JUCO runners for the Utes.
Can Brian Johnson take his game to the next level?
The answer to this question hinges on three critical and related aspects of Brian Johnson's game.
First, Johnson needs to play decisive football, making his reads quickly and correctly. This becomes more important with the offensive line undergoing some late personnel changes due to the injury of Jason Boone. Johnson needs to make quick and correct reads in the option game, but all indications are that he is running the option very well. There were a few times in camp, as there were in 2005, where Johnson appeared hesitant getting rid of the football in the passing game. He can buy time and make plays with his feet, but there have been moments when he appears hesitant to take off and run or get rid of the football, waiting for receivers to break open. While Utah will throw the ball downfield and run other routes that take longer to develop, he needs to anticipate receivers coming open or take off and run. Reading the defense, anticipating the open receiver and throwing the ball before the receiver actually becomes open are traits of most great quarterbacks. Admittedly, these moments of hesitation are much more infrequent than in 2005, but any hesitancy during the season could keep the Utes from converting in key situations.
Second, Johnson needs to stay healthy. By all accounts, he is fully recovered from the knee injury and it is a non-issue. Utah will put the ball in Johnson's hands to make plays on the ground mainly by running the option, so he will be exposed to hits. Johnson has been working on sliding to avoid most of these collisions. As long as Johnson can avoid taking unnecessary hits by sliding or getting out of bounds, he should remain in the game.
Finally, Johnson and the rest of the offense need to score touchdowns in the redzone. In the last two seasons, Utah has scored touchdowns only 60% and 58% of their possessions inside the opponents 20 yard line, numbers that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig admits are "not good enough." While the responsibility of putting 7 points instead of 3 on the scoreboard falls on the entire offense, Johnson will be the key figure in any improvement. Make no mistake; Johnson will put up numbers this year - both through the air and on the ground. The key to Johnson taking his game to the next level lies in turning those numbers into points on the scoreboard.
Which young defensive players will step up?
Youth is the commodity Utah will feature plenty of on defense in 2007 as just 3 starters return from the defensive line and secondary. Fortunately, all of the younger players currently slated to start all saw time at their current positions last season and have some experience. Look for a good year out of Kenape Eliapo at tackle in his first year as starter. Eliapo as good size and strength, and is quick off the ball. He has drawn praise from the offensive linemen he has been facing in practice. "He's a load," Zane Beadles said. Neli Aasa could become a key contributor in the line rotation with his size and strength. Greg Newman and Paul Kruger will both be key contributors at defensive end and should improve the pass rush. Expect both to receive quite a bit of playing time along with newcomer Koa Misi. Expect a lot of rotation along the line, as the staff could play as many as 11 linemen.
In the secondary, the youngster who has stepped up the most is sophomore RJ Stanford. Stanford has been one of the most improved as well as one of the most impressive players in camp. The former running back has come a long way since moving over to defense near the end of last season and has worked his way into the starting nickel back spot. Utah's secondary could be in better shape than expected after the loss of so many players from a year ago with the emergence of Sean Smith and Joe Dale to combine with Stanford and the improving Elijah Wesson.
Who will emerge as the team leaders?
The most notable leader to emerge this season has been Brian Johnson. The starting quarterback will usually stand out as a leader on offense, but Johnson has become a team leader as well. Steve Tate and Brice McCain have stepped up as vocal leaders as well. One team leader that might be flying under the radar some is senior defensive end Alex Puccinelli. "Pooch" has been seen giving advice to younger defensive linemen as well as pointers to the offensive linemen, most notably Zeke Tuinei-Wily.
Which new addition will make the biggest immediate impact?
There will be several newcomers who play this year, most notably the JUCO transfers Asiata, Robert Johnson, and Deshawn Richard. Of those three, Asiata has the most obvious chance to have an immediate impact. Johnson's play really picked up once the staff settled on his position, and the spotlight natural followed the physical specimen that Johnson is. In the shadow of the attention Johnson received, the play of Richard went mostly unnoticed. Richard started off camp very slow, but he played well toward the end of camp and should see plenty of playing time as a backup safety along with Johnson.
Among the freshman, there are several who could provide a boost to the team in more than special teams duties. However, the freshman who had the most impact a year ago could have been RJ Stanford and his outstanding play on punt coverage. Stanford was key in downing several punts inside the 5 yard line, and a major reason Utah led the nation in punting.
On defense, look for Lei Talamaivao and Derrick Shelby to play on the defensive line at tackle and end respectively. Both had strong camps and are very athletic. Don't be surprised to see them on the field in certain passing situations to provide a boost to the pass rush. At linebacker, the opportunity for a freshman to contribute will be difficult with the experience on the roster, but Nai Fotu came on strong at the strongside position once he arrived on campus. In the secondary, late JC transfer Terrell Cole could see playing time and freshman Brandon Burton looks good at corner and could be a great return man or gunner on special teams.
The offensive side of the ball is basically set with a great deal of returning experience. The most impressive player of fall camp might have been freshman Jereme Brooks, and as such it will be hard to keep him off the field. His play has not gone unnoticed by Andy Ludwig, either. "He will be an impact player for us," Ludwig said. Along with Brooks, Dallin Rogers has a good shot at playing time, lining up mainly at tight end. With the redzone woes of the past few seasons, Rogers provides a big, athletic target for Brian Johnson to throw to should he be used in that role. A sleeper for playing time is Eddie Wide, who could be utilized in multiple ways much like Brent Casteel should the staff decide to not redshirt him.
The new additions that could have the greatest impact are not players, but coaches. New cornerbacks coach Aaron Alford is helping the young corners make huge strides in their play and will be a major reason why Utah's secondary could be better than the prognosticators think. The hire of Alford also allowed Jay Hill to focus his time on the special teams, and Utah could improve in several areas of special teams play - most notably punt blocking - with Hill's focus completely on that phase of the game. The promotion of Morgan Scalley to graduate assistant should be noted as well. He has been working with the linebackers, improving their coverage skills while providing enthusiasm and excitement to the linebackers and the rest of the team.
How will the line cope with the loss of Jason Boone?
Unfortunately, an important question was added about midway through camp due to the season ending injury to Boone. Much has been said on this subject, but it just shows the value an offensive lineman has to the team and how vital continuity is to the play of the offensive line.
Utah experimented with several different players along the line to find the best combination of five linemen going into the season. It appears the staff is set with a starting lineup of Zane Beadles at left tackle, Corey Seiuli at left guard, Kyle Gunther at center, Robert Conley at right guard and Dustin Hensel at right tackle. The key for the unit is gaining familiarity with each other, as Utah's zone blocking scheme requires each lineman to play in combination with the linemen next to him. Don't be surprised to see a few rough spots early in the season that are smoothed out throughout the year as the line gains experience and familiarity with each other. Beadles might have the most difficult transition of all of them, having spent virtually his entire time at Utah at left guard. Moving over one spot may not seem like much, but the differences are extreme. Look for Utah to align a tight end on the left early in the season while Beadles adjusts. As a guard, Beadles is used to having someone outside of him and simply placing a tight end there can increase his comfort level. Beadles will also be on an island much more often at left tackle in the passing game, usually against the opposition's best pass rusher. Utah faces several great pass rushing ends this season, most notably the nation's leading returning sack master in UCLA's Bruce Davis and pre-season All-American Tommy Blake of TCU. How quickly Beadles and the line adjusts to their new assignments and gel will have a great deal of say on how the offense as a whole performs in 2007.