The 45-10 in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory punctuated what was considered a breakout year for the Utah football team and coaching staff in the Pac-12 conference. Despite the attrition among the coaching ranks, let's take a minute to reflect on the performance of each position coach and how they graded in the 2014 season.
Taylor Stubblefield - Wide Receivers
Stubblefield joined Utah's staff in the offseason and took over as the receivers coach. Under Stubblefield the receiving corps achieved similar statistics to the 2013 season, accounting for 14 touchdowns and 2,248 receiving yards. The Utah receiving group has had the injury bug the past few years which has beena struggle for coaches to deal with. In 2013 Kenneth Scott was out for the season and this past year it was Dres Anderson who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Despite the injury to Dres, Stubblefield was able to rely on both Kaelin Clay and Scott, as well as get production from Tim Patrick before he went down with an injury. Heading into 2015, Stubblefield will need to find another receiver to compliment Kenneth Scott as Anderson and Clay will be gone, and Patrick will be coming off a serious injury. Delshawn McClellon will be a candidate to fill that role, and showcased some of his skills with a touchdown at the Las Vegas Bowl. 2015 will be a great opportunity for Stubblefield to display his coaching skills as he tries to replace some big time talent.
2015 Outlook: Stubblefield remains on staff for the upcoming season (and spring ball), and his unit will get a great deal of scrutiny. Gone are Anderson and Clay. No timeline has been announced for the return of Patrick, and Scott has battled injuries throughout his career. If Stubblefield can put together a solid receiving corps this season, he'll put his stamp on the program.
Dennis Erickson - Running Backs
The running back position was the strength of the offense the entire 2014 season. Devontae Booker led the way for Dennis Erickson's group racking up 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns on 292 carries. The guy was a workhorse and at times the only offense the Utes had. Bubba Poole split some time with Booker early in the season, but for the most part was used mostly to give Booker the occasional breather. Even so, Poole was able to rush for 3 touchdowns of his own to go with 211 yards rushing. Despite being demoted from the starting role a season ago, Poole stayed positive and supportive of his teammates and contributed when he was given the opportunity. Troy McCormick was the third back for most of the season, but excited the fan base with flashes of potential, particularily in the Las Vegas Bowl where he ripped off a 49 yard run. Looking forward to next year, Erickson will have everybody back as Booker has elected to return for his senior year. It should be more of the same for the Utah running backs. Look for McCormick to get more touches this year and become the lightening to Booker's thunder.
2015 Outlook: Erickson returns as assistant head coach, with one of the most determined and talented runners in the nation. The man who once led Miami to a national title and was Pac-12 Coach of the Year at two different stops has also brought in additional talent from far and wide. The first order of business for Erickson in spring ball will be finding a back-up to All-Pac-12 first teamer, Booker. Otherwise, the outlook is excellent for Erickson and his stable of backs.
Jim Harding - Offensive Line
JIm Harding arrived from Wyoming to take over the offensive line from Dan Finn. The offensive line had become a point of concern under Finn and the majority of Ute fans were probably happy to see a change at that specific coaching position last offseason. Harding through one season, has proved to be a better fit for this program as play along the offensive line improved. Jeremiah Poutasi fared well enough he felt comfortable declaring for the NFL draft. Perhaps the biggest contribution Harding has brought to this staff however, is his recruiting ability. With both coordinators gone, Harding has picked up the slack, reeling in some big commits notably flipping offensive lineman Johnny Capra from Cal to the Utes as well as James Empey who had offers from schools such as Washington, Oregon State and BYU. Heading into next season Harding returns everybody except Poutasi to go along with a couple promising Freshman. The future looks bright for the Offensive Line position at Utah.
2015 Outlook: Harding has been named co-offensive coordinator, a position he both earned with his unit's performance on the field, as well as his recruiting off the field. Harding has a hole at left tackle to fill with the early departure of Jeremiah Poutasi to the NFL and the graduation of backup Mark Pouvave. Otherwise, every position along the line and the primary backup returns, and Harding brought in additional talent who could step in. Darrin Paulo is a name that could press for some playing time, as well as 6-6, 300-pound sophomore Jackson Barton. The O-line (or O-block, as the Utes call it) looks solid for the coming season, and it appears to be in good hands with Harding.
Aaron Roderick - Quarterback
Aaron Roderick took over coaching the Quarterbacks this past season. One noticeable change with Roderick in charge of quarterback play was ball security, especially with Travis Wilson. Wilson received the majority of playing time during the 2014 season and finished with 18 touchdowns versus 5 interceptions. Not turning the ball over was a point of emphasis for Wilson coming into the year after having thrown 16 interceptions in 2013. Wilson's completion percentage increased from 56.1% to 60.7% yet even with the improved numbers it was clear both Wilson and Kendal Thompson struggled to move the ball through the air at times. Going into next year the quarterback competition will be open and with Roderick a possible offensive coordinator candidate, it's hard to forecast exactly what 2015 hold for Utah quarterbacks
2015 Outlook: There is talent on the roster. Of that, there's no doubt. With Wilson and Thompson returning, the Utes have a decent one-two combination, and with Cox, Manning, Hansen, and Isom behind them, there are plenty of options. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has said Utah will retain the spread offense but how that fits any of the above mentioned signal callers is anyone's guess at this point. However, judging by Roderick's last offense, Wilson, Manning, Hansen, and Isom might be the best fits. But last season's unit was up and down all year. Utah lacked identity and a week-to-week leader. We'll begin to see in spring ball what identity Roderick will give the offense and what leader emerges (though the odds-on favorite is Wilson).
Sharrieff Shah - Cornerbacks
Shah made the transition from trial lawyer to Utah cornerbacks coach three seasons ago. In his time as Utah's secondary coach he has done a good job of transitioning players from other positions into playing cornerback. In 2013 Keith McGill moved to cornerback from the safety position and ended up getting drafted in the 4th round. This past year it was Eric Rowe who transitioned to the cornerback spot from the safety position, and under Shah's tutelage, has played himself into being talked about as an early round NFL draft pick at the cornerback position. Dominique Hatfield is another player that started the year at a different position, wide receiver, before moving to cornerback due to depth issues. Hatfield was solid for the Utes finishing the year with nine pass breakups and an interception returned for a touchdown. Shah gets Hatfield back next season but will need to find someone to replace Rowe at the other corner position.
2015 Outlook: Hatfield gives Shah a reliable option on one side of the field. Reggie Porter, if healthy, provides another, and Justin Thomas could be a solid third option, as well as the addition of South Carolina transfer Ahmad Christian. The talent and experience are there for a very good unit. Now, Shah has to make it happen. Last season's unit was better than expected, but not great. This unit has the potential to take that next step, which is extremely important in the pass-happy Pac-12.
Morgan Scalley - Safeties
Coach Scalley had a strong group safeties for the 2014 season. Brian Blechen returned for his senior season after a redshirt year and returned to form nicely as the leader and enforcer in the defensive backfield. Tevin Carter made some huge plays before he went down with injury early in the year. Maybe where Scalley should receive the most credit is for Marcus Williams, a freshman who played the majority of the season in Carter's absence and played quite well finishing with 59 tackles 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles. Williams returns for his sophomore season in 2015 and Carter will likely be back with a medical hardship waiver. Scalley is a candidate to take over the open defensive coordinator position, but will likely remain the safeties coach next season in any case.
2015 Outlook: Losing Blechen is both curse and blessing. He had a rough couple of years, both on and off the field, but he rebounded with a respectable senior season. Blechen wasn't as quick as Utah probably needs at the position in the Pac-12, but he may have lost a step by his final campaign due to injuries. However, Blechen was a hitter, and the most likely to knock out an opposing wide receiver crossing the middle of the field. His presence and leadership will be missed. Tevin Carter's status hasn't been determined as yet. If he doesn't get back a year of eligibility, the sophomores who were pressed into duty last season will need to take another step forward. But the good news for 2014 is that the young guys will be ready when called upon.
Kalani Sitake - Linebackers
Sitake is long gone to Oregon State but he didn't leave before coaching the Utah linebackers through a fantastic 2014 campaign. Jared Norris, Gionni Paul, Jason Whittingham, and Jason Fanaika all had good seasons for the Utes. Whittingham and Paul both sustained injuries that kept them out for large portions of the season but Sitake was able to fill the gaps with players like Pita Taumoepenu without much drop off in play. The Utes helped back up a dominant Utah defensive line and were led by Jared Norris who finished with 116 tackles and 4 sacks. Sitake may not be back but the entire linebacking corps will be and whoever becomes the new linebackers coach will have a full cupboard to work with.
Justin Ena, a former coach with Weber State University and Southern Utah, joins the Utes' staff this season, replacing Sitake. But with the talent noted above, he'll have a smooth transition. The real test for Ena will be recruiting replacements, an area of greatest need for the next recruiting class.
2015 Outlook: John Pease takes over for Kalani Sitake at defensive coordinator, after Sitake left to join Gary Anderson's staff in Corvallis, Ore. No one knows how good Pease will be structuring the defense or calling plays in his return to the Utes; however, he does have a great deal of respect in the coaching community and among former players, including SuperBowl-winning defensive tackle Sealver Siliga of the Patriots. What should be a major strength of the team heads into 2015 with a bit of a question mark.
Ilaisa Tuiaki - Defensive Line
Tuiaki oversaw a dominant defensive line highlighted by Ted Hendricks award winner Nate Orchard. The defense finished with a nation leading 55 sacks on the year and finished 10th in the nation with 103 tackles for a loss. Hunter Dimick had a breakout sophomore campaign with 10 sacks and Lowell Lotulelei established himself on the inside for years to come. Just like Sitake, Tuiaki is now in Corvallis readying for a 2015 season with the Oregon State Beavers. However much like with linebacking corps the defensive line returns plenty of talent despite the loss of Nate Orchard. It should be another productive season upcoming for the Utah defensive line.
2015 Outlook: Pease will be taking over defensive line coaching duties. Last season, the line was one of the best in college football. How he works with his linemen remains to be seen, but the good news is that a lot of talent returns, including Dimick, Lotulelei, Kylie Fitts, Jason Fanaika, and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. Pease will need to find and coach up a player to replace one of the best linemen Utah has ever had in the NFL-bound Orchard.
Kyle Whittingham - Special Teams
Jay Hill left to become the head coach at Weber State, which left Kyle Whittingham to take over the special teams group. All Whittingham did was oversee the best special teams group in the country as Tom Hackett won the Ray Guy award. Andy Phillips continued on his 2013 success as one of the best kickers in the country conecting 23 of 28 field goal attempts. Kaelin Clay was dynamic in the return game returning one kickoff return and three punt returns for touchdowns. Hackett and Phillips are back once again next season while Clay has exhausted his collegiate eligibility. It remains to be seen if Whittingham will remain as special teams coach or assign those duties to another coach. If Whittingham does continue as special teams coach you can be sure they will continue to play at a high level.
2015 Outlook: Scalley, the long-time safeties coach also takes over the special teams coordinating duties from Whittingham. He has some pretty good pieces in place in Ray Guy Award winner and All-American Tom Hackett, as well as junior Andy Phillips. The intense coach will need to find a replacement for All Pac-12 first teamer and All-American Kaelin Clay in the return game. But this season's special teams could be even more special with a coach who, as a player, returned a kickoff for a touchdown on a reverse. Fans might see some interesting formations (Andy Phillips teased on Twitter that the formation they threw at Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl actually snaps the ball) and sudden fakes from a coach who might be the most aggressive on the staff.