Now that 2006 has wrapped up for Utah football, most fans are already turning their attention to the start of next season. Even though we're months away from spring ball and it's an even longer wait until Utah kicks off the season, it's never too early to take a glance at the next year's Utes.
What returns is an offensive machine that should once again find itself toward the top in the NCAA. Brian Johnson, after a season of sitting out with an injury, will replace Brett Ratliff, while the Utes' wide receivers core will pretty much stay intact. The Utes' offense also should be stronger on the ground, as junior college stud running back Matt Asiata will join the Utah after spring ball. Clearly it'll be Utah's offense that will be their strongest attribute next year, unlike this year where the offense struggled greatly at times.
The Brian Johnson Effect
Brian Johnson had a phenomenal sophomore season for the Utes in 2005, yet was hindered by typical rookie mistakes. Johnson's worst game oddly enough turned out to be his last, a disaster of a contest against the Lobos in Salt Lake City a week prior to the 2005 Holy War. There were also the horrendous red zone break downs in many games and the low scoring production that often did not mirror the offensive numbers. For the Utes to succeed next year and put out an explosive offense, this will need to change and I expect it will with a deep receiving core and a running game that may be more closer to that of Ganther's in 2005 than Liti's and Poston's this season.
Johnson has proven to be a solid quarterback that can run the option damn well. I do believe he's more consistent and less mistake prone than Ratliff was this season. That's a major attribute, as it's something Utah lacked the entire season. However Johnson hasn't played in a game since November of '05 and how well will he react to the situations presented to him in the Utes' first game, especially if it's Oregon State and on the road?
I'm confident Johnson will be the Mountain West's best quarterback next year. This offense is tailored around his strong points and unlike with Ratliff, it won't be like forcing a square peg into a round hole. That should be good enough to keep Utah's offense amongst some of the best in the nation.
Utah returns every impact receiver next season and that will be a huge break for the Utes. This year they had to adjust to losing John Madsen and Travis LaTendress, that won't be the case at the start of the '07 season. What the Utes bring back is true experience to help open up their spread option game.
With this style, I believe having solid receivers will open the offense up even more than anything we've seen the past two years. It gives Utah a homerun threat and also helps spread the field even more. Utah's receivers are clearly the best aspect of the Utes' offense and should really hurt opposing teams. Johnson got a lot done in '05 without these types of weapons, I can't wait to see what he does with them.
Grounding it out
Utah's biggest weakness this season on offense was undoubtedly the running game. I think it's generally believed, at least I believe so anyway, that if the Utes had a solid running attack they would have defeated both the Lobos and BYU. That's a 10-win season right there and a share of the conference championship. The lack of that running game was a much larger impact than any Ute fan realized heading into the season and it seems the coaches are trying to address it. The savior? Matt Asiata, former Hunter High School standout and current Snow College running back. He'll have the foturne (or misfortune if you will) of bringing back Utah's strong tradition of great backs and while I don't think he'll be all-conference from the start, I do believe he will be good enough to open up Utah's offensive game.
The Utes also return Mike Liti and possibly Darryl Poston, so I definitely see this group improving next year. At least they can't be any worse than they were last year and even then the Utes' running game was only mediocre, not bad.
Next season I think Utah's offense will be explosive and put up some solid numbers. It'll be fun to watch and I expect more points than anything we saw the past two years. The biggest questions though will come from whether or not the offense can continue to improve in the red zone and whether or not the running game can dominate defensive lines all season long. If there is a strong balance on offense and Brian Johnson improves on his 2005 play, Utah will be a very difficult team to stop.