With the 2016 season starting this week, Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media for the first press conference of the season. He covered a lot of topics and had a lot of praise for the team.
"Here we go again. It's here. We're playing obviously in three days so we're excited about that. As everyone else in the country, we're tired of beating on each other for the last month. It's going to be great to get out and see what we have. We have some new things going on: a new quarterback for the first time in several years, new running backs for the most part, Devontae Booker is gone obviously, some new linebackers and a punter so it's going to be exciting to see how these guys perform. We've had a terrific fall camp and prior to that summer conditioning, spring ball and winter conditioning. It's been an outstanding offseason altogether. We're really excited about the new recruiting class. They're going to figure in fairly prominently. You'll see Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon returning kickoffs, both true freshmen. [Burgess] will be the primary return guy and [Blackmon] will be the off returner. We can't wait to get going. I'm excited to see the receiving corps. They've worked their tails off all offseason. It has been a completely different group in practices and in the scrimmages so we need that to translate onto the field on Thursday night. I'm excited to watch [quarterback] Troy [Williams] play his second collegiate start. Troy McCormick and Tim Patrick, it's great to have those guys back so there are a lot of good things going on. We just need to go out and play now to see where we are and find out what type of team we are."
Whittingham was asked how to protect against the dreaded FCS upset, which seems to happen at least once every season.
"Just about every year it happens and sometimes multiple times in a year. We have to be ready. [Southern Utah] has all of our attention. They have all of our respect. They had a terrific year last year. They have three players on NFL rosters right now from last year's team. That's last year, but that shows the level of talent they've been able to get into the program. I believe they have another couple of guys who are targeted to be NFL guys on the current roster. It was mentioned about Portland State, Eastern Washington has knocked off a couple of FBS teams over the years. It happens every year and our goal is to not be one of those teams. We've talked about that on more than one occasion. We have to be ready to play and I believe we will be."
Utah started fall camp with a three-way tie at quarterback. During fall camp, Troy Williams emerged as the leader of the pack and will be Utah’s starting quarterback and is also a team captain.
"First of all, it more than likely would not have been in a three-way tie [heading into fall camp] had [Williams] been able to finish spring ball. He got knocked out of spring ball halfway through and was really starting to separate at that point. He picked up where he left off in fall camp and continued to be the guy who was performing best. By the third week of fall camp, it became pretty apparent that he had separated himself completely. He's a guy who has everything you're looking for in a quarterback. Physically, he possesses the arm, mobility and decision making, but also has the intangibles. He's a great leader, as evidenced by being voted team captain by his peers and it was a wide margin after only being here seven or eight months. That speaks to the level of respect and acceptance that he has among his teammates. We're excited to watch him play."
Utah has been poor throwing the ball since joining the Pac-12. One of the goals for the team this year is to change that and become more balanced offensively.
"It's been a point of emphasis ever since last season ended. It's received much more attention in practice than ever before, not that we didn't give it enough attention before but we made a concerted effort across the board to make sure that we had sunk enough reps into the throw game to get where we need to be. Hopefully we're there, but we'll find out. In practice, we're there but that's just practice. Practice doesn't count. As far as making plays on Saturdays, [practice is] usually a pretty good indicator. Usually, you play how you practice. That's been my experience."
Whittingham was asked about which areas are most improved in the passing game heading into the 2016 season.
"We've seen a far more competitive nature from the receivers [this year]. They're practicing with a great deal of intensity and purpose and [there have been] far fewer drops. There have been far less drops than there have been in years past. The big play capability seems to be definitely on the rise in relation to the last couple of years. There's really no area other than all of the above. We feel like we're better in each area, blocking as well. We've been more physical in blocking."
One of the main reasons for the optimizing around the passing game is improved play from the wide receivers. Whittingham explained why they have improved so much.
"There are a lot of factors. Not to be disparaging against anyone else, but [first-year wide receivers coach] Guy Holliday seems to be just what this particular group needed as far as his personality and how he operates. They've really responded well to him. Getting Tim Patrick back is huge. He's the leader of the group and one of the leaders of the entire team. As I said earlier, we missed him last year and having him back is huge. He's a tough matchup. He's 6-5, 210 pounds and runs extremely well. That's a tough matchup for defenses. I don't think it's any one thing. I think it's a culmination of a bunch of things, which are the reasons why we're optimistic about this year."
Last season Utah opened against Michigan, one of the most storied programs in college football. This season, they open against an FCS opponent. Whittingham was asked if the game feels different or if there has been a different approach heading into this season’s opener compared to last season’s.
"It's a little different feel, there's no getting around that. When you have a team such as Michigan coming into your stadium for the first time ever (although this will be our first meeting with Southern Utah so they've never been to our stadium either), but you prepare the same way. There may be a little different strategic element to the game. I'm not going to go into what that is, but it is a little bit different. It's an opener nonetheless and everyone's excited. There are a lot of unknowns. [Southern Utah] has a new head coach [Demario Warren], just like Michigan did last year, but there are a lot of holdovers from the old staff. There are a lot of unknowns and just like every year we have to be ready to adjust to things that show up in a game that we haven't seen on tape or prepared for. That's the nature of an opener, you have to be able to make those adjustments in game and that will be a big factor on Thursday night."
Southern Utah had two players drafted last season another player will likely make an NFL roster. Whittingham was asked if their recent success putting players into the NFL affects the approach to this game.
"It doesn't really affect [how we prepare for this game]. We're concerned with the guys who are there now. We're preparing for those guys and even that is a little big of a crap shoot because they have had a whole year to re-tool things. Guys who have played in the past may have gotten beaten out so there are a lot of unknowns there, but you don't really concern yourself with guys they've had who have moved on. It's just what you see on tape and how you can best defend or attack, as the case may be, what you see on tape."
Utah had a lot of success forcing turnovers last season, leading the Pac-12 in interceptions, which contributed to the 10-win season.
"It plays a huge role. I think we were plus-13 last season. That's a very good number for an entire season. It's the most important stat in football other than the final score. We had a drought the first few years in the Pac-12 [Conference], but it's been much better over the last couple of years, not only with takeaways, but with impact plays like sacks. Those are the plays that can really change the complexion of a game. It's really indicative of our recruiting. We're to the point now in the secondary where we match up very well. Whereas when we first got in the league, there were a lot of mismatches in the backfield."
On the latest depth chart, Pita Taumoepenu is listed as the starter over Kylie Fitts.
"The three defensive ends who will get equal reps are Pita [Taumoepenu], Hunter [Dimick] and Kylie [Fitts]. [Taumoepenu] has been outstanding in fall camp. [Fitts] has missed a little bit of time due to some nagging things so we just felt [moving Taumoepenu into the starting position at right end] was warranted and deserving for [Taumoepenu] to be the starter. Like I said, all three will get equal reps, just like we have the three defensive tackles --- Lowell [Lotulelei], Filipo [Mokofisi] and Pasoni [Tasini]. We have six guys who are really starters on the defensive line and a couple of guys in each position behind those guys."
Senior cornerback Dominique Hatfield had uncertain status with the team heading into last season and now he is a leader and a team captain heading into this season.
"I'm exceptionally proud of him and couldn't be more thrilled for a player. To come from a point where he had his back against the wall and a lot going against him to turn things around, he did a fantastic job righting the ship, I guess you could say. He's just been a model teammate ever since then. We got him back on the team last year and he had straight As last semester so I'm proud of that as well. He's a team captain. Like I talked about with Troy [Williams], he has the respect of his teammates and they've embraced him with open arms. It's great to see. Now he has to keep doing things the right way, which I fully expect he will."
Utah has co-starters at tight end with Harrison Handley and Evan Moeai
"The tight ends are interchangeable. Harrison Handley and Evan Moeai don't have exactly similar roles. Their skill sets are a little bit different. Depending on what plays we have dialed up or what groups of personnel we have will determine which one is in the game, but they're on equal footing as far as co-starters."
As Whittingham mentioned in his opening statement, true freshmen Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon will returning kickoffs this season. Whittingham was asked how they earned the starting jobs.
"It's what they've done in practice. [Burgess] was an outstanding kickoff return guy in high school so he's a proven commodity back there. [Blackmon] has proven to be one of the most pleasant surprises in camp with the way he has responded to the transition to Division I football as a corner as well as a kick returner. It was nothing other than performance and what we saw on tape when we recruited both of them."
Utah had a great 2016 recruiting class, and many of the players from that class are pushing for playing time.
"[They've pushed] a great deal and that's good to see. Competition is a healthy thing. The more competition you have makes everyone better. We said quite a few times in the offseason that this is by far the best recruiting class that we've ever signed and that's starting to bear out with the play on the field."
Under first-year defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, the defense will still look similar to defenses in the past, but he is more aggressive than his predecessor John Pease.
"First of all, we haven't missed a beat going from Coach [John] Pease to Coach Scalley. It's been a seamless transition. [Scalley] has done a nice job taking over the reins continuing to hopefully perpetuate what we already have going on defense. [Scalley] is a little bit different than Coach Pease, who is more [likely to] bring four and play coverage on the back end and beat you that way. Coach Scalley is a little more aggressive with his defensive play calling. There's no right or wrong. Both methods have worked. It's just a matter of your personality. [Scalley] has done a nice job putting his stamp on the defense and you'll see that continue as he settles in as a coordinator. He's doing a nice job."
The full playbook will not be on display in game one, but it never is. It will get installed over the course of the season and different plays/formations/schemes will be used against different teams.
"Every year, you can't go into the entire playbook [in one game]. You just have too much in a playbook, both offensively and defensively, to carry it all every week so you pick and choose what fits best based on your opponent and their schematics. To answer the question, no, we won't show our entire playbook. We didn't show it [last year] against Michigan, either. You have to do what you feel is effective. Defensively, for example, you might have 40 of 50 total calls in the different defensive structures and you might carry 20 or 25 in a game. That's just typical of how it is. It's the same on offense."
True freshman Tyler Huntley will not be redshirted this year.
"Less than fifty percent of teams have the same starting quarterback all season so in terms of percentages, we may have a need to have [Huntley] ready somewhere along the way. If and when that time comes, we want him to have as much game experience as possible prior to that. There is no thought whatsoever of redshirting Tyler. College football has a win now mentality. There's no one who thinks any differently so if a guy can help us win, or is in a position where he may be called on to help us win, then we have to get him ready."
With Brandon Cox transferring, the emergency third-string quarterback is Jason Thompson.
"[That would be] Jason Thompson. He's the emergency quarterback right now. He's also obviously on the depth chart as a safety, but he's taken a certain percentage of the reps in practice as a quarterback and he's the guy who would fill that role. If we lost a quarterback then we'd also look at a guy like Chase Hansen starting to get some reps, too. You always have to have three guys in mind. If you get past that, you have to do what you have to do, but you at least have to have three guys in mind: your No. 1, No. 2 and your contingency plan as No. 3."
Utah enters the 2016 season with a deep and talented offensive line, which will help as Utah adjusts to new skill position players on offense.
"It's a huge plus to have depth and experience on the offensive line no matter what's going on around them, but in particular [it helps] if you have a new quarterback and some other things like a new running back, so to speak. If you want to be a good football team, the starting point is on the line of scrimmage. We feel like we're really good on both sides of the line of scrimmage with more depth and ability than we've had in the last 12 years, at least since I've been head coach."
Whittingham was asked if the coaches know right now who will redshirt in the 2016 season.
"There is a group of six or eight guys who are slotted in that category right now. You have to see how the first three or four weeks go. If you have a rash of injuries at one position, things could change. We don't release that list until probably midseason, who's going to be definitely in the redshirt category. We have a good idea with probably 90 percent of the guys who will redshirt right now. There are some guys on the bubble."