Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media at his weekly press conference yesterday for the first time in the 2017 season ahead of Utah’s season opener against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. He touched on many topics ranging from what he wants to see from the new offense, to the opponent North Dakota, and he talked about several things not related to football like the situation in Houston, Texas.
"It is great to get the season started. We have been in training camp for a long time, it seems like forever. I think we handled it as well as we could have given the new NCAA rules. Hopefully our guys feel fresh and ready to go come Thursday night. I am excited to see what we've got. There will be a lot of new faces, lost a lot of talent off of last year's team, but we have some new guys stepping up. It is their opportunity and their time to show what they can do and I am excited to watch them play."
The big surprise coming out of fall camp was true sophomore Tyler Huntley being named the starting quarterback. Even a week after the announcement, it still feels like a shock to some that Huntley edged out incumbent starter Troy Williams (Huntley cracked a smile during Whittingham’s last sentence in his answer.)
"We have always thought that he had a lot of potential since the day he got on campus. We were impressed with what he did in the Foster Farms Bowl, even though it was limited action. But what he did in that game was pretty impressive. Starting off in the spring, he was playing well and that is why coming out of spring there was no starter named because it was so close. That battle continued into fall camp, and I wanted to make sure each of the three guys, Cooper Bateman as well, the opportunity to prove themselves and show what they can do. That is why the competition went on so long because we didn't want to be premature with naming a guy. We still named him 12 days out from the game, so that is reasonable in my opinion. Tyler Huntley is a talented young man and a true dual threat quarterback. He won the job. It is plain and simple."
Utah is facing top-10 ranked FCS opponent North Dakota that plays a physical style of football Utah will not see many more times in 2017.
"Tough football team. They are physical. They won a bunch of games last season. They have just about everybody back. They are very well coached. They are a quality football team and by all means all of our focus is on them and nobody else. That has been the case all of fall camp. As soon as we started to dial in on our opponents instead of just working against each other, it has been all about North Dakota."
The Utah offense struggled to score points last season in the red zone. Part of the new change to a new offense was to improve red zone efficiency.
"There are a lot of things we didn't do well in the red zone. So, there were a lot of things to improve on, and we think we have in the spring and in fall camp. It will be a whole new look down there with Troy Taylor's new offense. But that was a definite liability for us last year, and in fact, if we would have been really good in the red zone it may have been a different story. Nonetheless, we know we have work to do there and have focused on it all of spring ball and fall camp. Hopefully we have better results this year. We need better results."
For the first time in the Pac-12 era, Utah has four wide receivers listed on the depth chart.
"The receiver group has had more of a dramatic difference than any other group on the football team if you compare it to last year. We feel we have really helped ourselves at this spot. A lot of Troy's offensive sets employ four receivers, so even though the tight end is still going to be a big part of what we do and we have some tight ends that we really like in Harrison Handley and Siale Fakailoatonga, you are definitely going to see four wide receivers on the field a good percentage of the time."
Whittingham was asked about what he expects to see from all of the new starters in Thursday’s game against North Dakota.
"Well we expect to have good results. You are going to play like you practice, and practice has been really good. Even though a lot of these guys don't have game experience, which there will be a learning curve there, my experience is that if the guy makes plays in practice, he is probably going to do it in the game."
Another big story out of the offseason was Utah’s addition of former Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington II. Carrington was a playmaker at Oregon.
"He has been exactly what we expected. He is a tremendously talented athlete and is a fierce competitor on the practice field. He knows how to practice, which fits right into our mentality. We practice well here. This is a program that works hard on the practice field, we get after it. He is such a playmaker. Down the field is where he is exceptional with the contested ball. He will run and you will think he is covered but then he will go up and make an acrobatic catch that very few players can make. He has really added to what we are doing. He is a perfect fit for what Coach Taylor wants to do offensively. I know our quarterbacks love to throw to him. We have some excellent targets with Raelon Singleton having a great camp. So, that group looks entirely different than it did a couple of years ago."
Zack Moss is the starting running back and will be expected to take many of the carries. With Armand Shyne out with an injury, there is a question about the depth behind Moss at running back.
"Yeah he is the lead back without a doubt. He is a physical kid. He is 215 pounds, not really tall, but he is built and really sturdy. He is exceptionally strong. He can catch the ball well which fits into Troy's offense well because the running back needs to be able to catch the ball. With Armand Shyne going down, it was a two-man race, but Moss had started to edge ahead there. He is the guy that is going to get the majority of the carries. We have Jordan Howard and Devonta'e Henry-Cole behind him. Troy McCormick, Jr. moved back from wide receiver after we lost Armand in order to bolster the running back position. We have four guys that really figure in. Zack is definitely the lead back."
Utah will play quite a few freshmen in the game Thursday.
"Yeah I think there is going to be a bunch of them that make an impact this season. We will see when the bright lights are on how they will perform since some handle it differently than others, but when you talk about true freshmen and redshirt freshmen, there will be a bunch of guys that figure in this season."
On offense, the position group replacing the most players is the offensive line, who returns only one starter after sending four players to the NFL from last season.
"They have really started to come together. We wish we could have gotten that group solidified a little earlier in camp. We had guys that were out, guys that were injured and some that were moving around to make sure we got the best five out there. The first objective is to get the best five players out there and then put those five in the best positions. We are very confident that we have done that now. We feel we have seven guys that are really ready to play and then an eighth and a ninth guy that are on the verge of being ready. Salesi Uhatafe is returning with significant playing time and Jackson Barton has played quite a bit the last couple of years, but we think that we are talented, but just short on game experience. We will see how quickly they can gel, but based on what we have seen in practice, they have come a long way and are starting to look like a Pac-12 offensive line."
Utah has yet to name a starting place kicker.
"It will probably go right down to Wednesday to determine who is going to kick, maybe you will see both guys kick in the game, we will see how it goes. It is a very close battle. Kicking off and punting it going to be Mitch Wishnowsky, but placekicking is going to be between Chayden Johnston and Matt Gay, so we will see what happens in the next couple of days."
Utah has to replace four year starter at long snapper Chase Dominguez (if you don’t recognize his name, it is because he did his job and didn’t have a bad snap).
"Between Harrison Handley and Alex Whittingham those guys will handle the snapping. Harrison, if he is ready to go, will handle part of it and Alex the other portion and we will see how things go from there."
The reason Darren Carrington II came to Utah is because he was kicked off the Oregon football team for a DUII. Coming to Utah, he has obviously had some off the field expectations to live up to.
"We have a program in place with people that he meets with and places he needs to be and doing things he needs to be doing. He has been perfect so far. There have been no deviations from what the expectations have been. When you bring a guy in that has some history, you have a support system for him, you don't just bring him in, cross your fingers and hope he does well. So, we have that all set up where he meets with people that help him through this situation that he has got himself into and hopefully he is getting some really good counseling and feedback that will help him stay on the straight and narrow."
Hurricane Harvey has ravaged the Houston area, and Utah has five players on the team that are from the Houston area originally.
"We have four or five guys from the Houston area and our thoughts and prayers are definitely with their families. It is bad. We are hoping for the best and that is certainly on our minds, first and foremost for our players and their families."
North Dakota runs an old school power offense that has become far less common in college football these days. Utah’s base defense has switched to nickel because they primarily face spread offenses in the Pac-12, but they will likely play a lot of 4-3 in the game Thursday.
"It is the exception in this day and age of football to have a traditional two-back, 21 personnel football team. You have to structure that with your scout teams, which we have been doing for two weeks now, because that is a departure from the spread attacks that we see most weeks. So, the scout team has been doing a pretty good job at preparing some looks for our defense. We have a 4-3 package that I said a couple of years ago we played less 4-3 than we did nickel, but we do have a package that we have held on to for a number of years that has been good to us, and that will be prevalent Thursday night."
Bradlee Anae will start at defensive end this season as a true sophomore after seeing a good bit of playing time as a true freshman last season. He is the only non-senior starter on the defensive line.
"I like a lot about Bradlee Anae. He is a tremendous athlete. He has the whole package. He is 6-3, 265 pounds. He is athletic and tenacious. He has a great burst and if you put him out there with those three seniors in Kylie Fitts, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, that is a good group. And then we have a whole other set of guys behind them that are the up and comers and they are a good group as well."
Being the starting quarterback can by accompanied by a lot of pressure for new starter Tyler Huntley, but Whittingham thinks he will handle it.
"I think just fine. He is a confident young man. He has charisma, he has leadership skills and has ton of energy. He is exactly what you look for in a quarterback as far as his personality and how he carries himself."
The secondary, like the offensive line, returns only one starter from last season. Utah recruited well last year and brought in many talented newcomers and has developed younger players on the team.
"I made a statement a couple of weeks ago that I think we can be better than we were last year. We took a hit with Tyrone Smith going down because he would have been a big factor this season in the secondary as well as Tereke Lewis when he didn't make it, so taking those two out of the equation didn't help us. But still, when you talk about the guys that will be playing like Julian Blackmon, Casey Hughes, Jaylon Johnson, Boobie Hobbs, Terrell Burgess, Javelin Guidry and then Kenric Young has moved over there and given us another good athlete at that position. And then at the safety position when Chase Hansen is up to speed, Corrion Ballard and Philip Afia, who might be the most improved player on the team coming out of camp, I am not backing down from the statement where I said this could end up being an outstanding group."
When facing a lower division team, it can be easy for teams to lose focus during these types of non-conference games, but Utah has been able to guard against that, going 21-1 in nonconference play since joining the Pac-12.
"It is just our mentality. We don't ever get ahead of ourselves. I think the guys that have been in the program for a few years understand that and they set the tone for the younger guys. Learning how to focus on what is in front of you and nothing else is part of our culture. It has carried on from senior class to senior class. It is how we operate. It was our players believe in and they have bought into that."
Whittingham was asked what he wants to see from the offense in the first game.
"Efficiency will be number one. Making sure the offense is running the way it is supposed to run. Taking care of the football is always a huge factor in any football game. We have to throw much better than we did last year. We have to throw more efficiently and have get those big plays up the field more often. Just the overall mechanics of the offense needs to be smooth."