Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham gave his first press conference of the 2015 football season before Utah football's season opener Sept. 3 against the Michigan Wolverines at Rice-Eccles Stadium. One point that came up with Whittingham and running back Devontae Booker is that despite all of the hype around the Michigan game, it is still just one game, and the team is treating Michigan just like any other opponent. Whittingham also said senior quarterback Travis Wilson is the starter, which is not surprising news as he has topped the depth chart the whole offseason.
"It's here. It was a quick offseason as it usually is. Our guys have really worked hard this offseason so it's been very, very productive. We have a very experienced group coming back this year. Whenever you have an opener against a high-profile team like this, you want to have a lot of experience. And we feel at most positions, we're in that situation. That's a positive. Fall camp has gone very well. Travis [Wilson] is our starter [at quarterback]. That was a big and frequent question in fall camp as far as the quarterback situation so Travis has won that job. Kendal [Thompson] played well. Chase Hansen played well and [the competition] was tight, but Travis played the best in our estimation so Travis is the guy. We're excited to see what he can do. Hopefully, he can pick up where he left off last season as far as his production. It's no secret we need to throw the ball better to help Devontae Booker out. That's been a hot topic all offseason as well. For Devontae to go for 1,500 yards with defenses stacked against him essentially all season long was a pretty good accomplishment. That's where we're at.
"The Wolverines are a big team, big name. They're a storied program with a lot of tradition and a bunch of national championships. There's a lot of excitement with their new coach and so we have to stay focused throughout our preparation process, which our guys have done a nice job doing. Today is a Wednesday in that routine and, like I said, we have an experienced group and they've been through this process so many times. They know it like the back of their hand so we're just going through our paces until kickoff which is at 6:30 on Thursday evening."
Michigan has a brand new coaching staff, which makes film study much different than it would be for most games, especially since it is the first game of the 2015 season. The Utah coaches and players have studied film from multiple different college programs and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL to get a feel for what the new Michigan coaches may do.
"We studied both his 49ers and Stanford teams and Florida for defensive stuff [Defensive Coordinator D.J. Durkin was Florida’s Defensive Coordinator from 2013-14] and the Jacksonville Jaguars where their [Passing Game Coordinator/Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers Coach Jedd Fisch] was. John Baxter, who is an outstanding special teams coach, was at USC, so it’s a hodgepodge of five, six or seven different places that we’ve formed a best-guess scenario. That’s the best you can hope for anyway because you never know. Even when you have a returning staff, there are still changes that can be made in the offseason and different schematics. When you have a new staff, anything is in the realm of possibility. We feel like we have a general idea of what to expect. You try to expose your players to virtually everything you think they might see during fall camp and build a game plan that will be able to accommodate all of the possibilities. But the key is in-game adjustments after the second or third series when you get a feel of what they’re trying to do or what their M.O. is. You can’t wait until halftime. You have to adjust in game on the sidelines and get those adjustments down so you can make corrections and get people in the right places or any changes in structure or anything you need to do to make sure you’re doing things right. That’ll be a huge part of determining the outcome of the game, which team is better able to make those [adjustments]. We may have a bigger challenge than [Michigan] in that we haven’t changed a whole lot schematically."
One reporter asked Whittingham what some of the other keys are for the Utah football team to beat Michigan on Thursday.
"Our guys playing hard and being relentless. You’re going to make some mistakes in the first game out. The old adage is that you improve the most from game one to game two because in game one there are a lot of guys playing their first NCAA Division I game so mistakes can be made. But if you have max effort, you can cover up those mistakes. Hustle will cover up a lot of things you’re not doing right and allow you to continue to have success."
While Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has not officially named a starting quarterback, most people expect it to be Iowa transfer Jake Rudock over Shane Morris. Because of Rudock's time at Iowa, Iowa was among the many schools' film that Utah has studied to prepare for Michigan.
"Iowa [where Rudock transferred from] was one of those six or seven schools, programs or teams that we have taken a look at. He’s a good quarterback. He does a lot of good things. We’re anticipating that we may see them both [Michigan’s lone returning quarterback is Shane Morris]. [Rudock] may be the lead guy as the starter, but you never know that for sure. Again, we’ll just have to adjust. There’s not a big scheme adjustment they use depending on which one is the guy. It’s not like they’re radically different from one another so which one starts doesn’t have a huge bearing on the game preparation."
Wilson's strong play to end last season and throughout this offseason is what separated him from the other quarterbacks and led to the decision to name him the starter.
"He just continued to play well. He played extremely well at the end of last season. He was the MVP of our bowl, played well all throughout spring even though Kendal [Thompson] was there on a limited basis. He had poise and confidence all through fall camp and was just doing everything better. He’s played a lot of football for us here. He’s been starting full time for 2.5 years now and we felt he was playing his best football as a Ute at the end of last season and we’re hoping that continues this year."
The game against Michigan has gotten a ton of attention from national media, largely due to Harbaugh's return to college football. The big stage is not daunting for the Utah football team though. They are battle-tested in big stage games through their four years in the Pac-12.
"Our guys have played the Pac-12 schedule for four years now. We’ve been to Autzen [Stadium], the Rose Bowl, the Los Angeles Coliseum and ‘The Big House’ [Michigan Stadium] so our guys know how to handle games now. There is no big game. Every game is a big game in this conference and with our schedule. I feel like our guys are very battle tested and have been exposed to enough big-time atmospheres and hostile crowds. [Thursday night] might be the single biggest crowd in Rice-Eccles Stadium history. We’re hoping for that. Our guys will feed off of that so it should be a big advantage for us."
One reporter asked if being able to get Michigan on the schedule for a home-and-home was surprising. The game on Thursday will mark the first the Wolverines have played a game in the West since traveling to Oregon in 2003. It is also the first BIg Ten opponent to come to Rice-Eccles Stadium since Indiana came in 2002.
"Yes and no. Since we’ve joined the Pac-12, there have been quite a few big-brand schools that have explored possibilities of games with us. I don’t think it surprised me, but it certainly wasn’t something we could pass up when you have an opportunity to do that."
Whittingham's first thought after Harbaugh was named Michigan's head coach:
"He’ll do a great job. He’s a heck of a coach. He’s a proven commodity. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. He knows how to get it done. I thought it was a great hire for them."
Harbaugh coached teams are known for running a physical, pro-style offense. Utah has historically done well against physical teams, but they will face a Michigan team with a lot of talent, and a coach who knows how to run a very physical offense that has worked at the college and NFL level. In college, the pro-style offense is becoming less and less common with more teams switching to hurry-up spread offenses.
"We hope that we're physical enough to stand up to it. We usually are able to handle whatever people throw at us, most weeks. But there have been so many years now, where the pro-style attack has just diminished. It's almost like our guys are not used to playing it any more. In fact, we base out of a 4-3 defense but last year was the first year that a majority of the snaps were not out of base defense. They were out of the nickel package and some of the sub-packages. Each year, it seems like you see [the pro-style offense] less and less. We have guys still in the program who played against it four or five years ago, like when Jared Norris first got here there were more teams doing that. We feel like we're a physical team and we have matched up well against those attacks, but they're so few and far between that we hope to continue that."
Many fans may wonder how much the approach changes for the season opener this year with a huge game against Michigan compared to past season openers that often featured a game against an FCS team.
"No change as far as preparation. We prepare the same for everyone and that’s just how it is. I’ve said countless times that if there’s a better way to prepare, we’d use that every week, not just for a particular opponent. We’re going through the paces just like we always would. One thing [playing a team like Michigan] does is it gets your players’ attention right away. We’ve been pointing to this game and talking about it for months and months because it’s obviously a much higher profile game than some of our other openers."
Only two positions on the most current depth chart have co-starters: slot receiver and tight end. Each player will get reps, but how those reps will be decided and in what situations will not be revealed until game time on Thursday.
"We just know that they’re all going to play at those particular spots. We’re not going to tell you which positions which will be in, but you’ll see both [Siale Fakailoatonga and Evan Moeai] at tight end and both [Britain Covey and Bubba Poole] at slot periodically through the game."
Utah's wide receivers were a big question mark heading into fall camp, but they had a great showing through camp. The leader of the group, and maybe of the whole team, is senior Kenneth Scott.
"Kenneth Scott is the leader of that group and might be the leader of our team. He's been a great leader for us all offseason long and all through camp. As a sixth-year senior, you'd expect that out of a guy who's been in our program as long as he has. He has the most extensive experience playing the position by far. We have four really good young freshmen who we're really high on. They may not all contribute this season, time will tell. Tyrone Smith, Siaosi Wilson, Britain Covey and Raelon Singleton, he's a redshirt freshman, but we think those guys have a great future in this program and will make us a receiving corps to be reckoned with in years to come. For right now, Scott is the guy who has the most experience. Bubba Poole is also a guy who made the move to wide receiver so he's going to give us some help there. Tim Patrick has been hobbled during fall camp, but we're hoping he's available and ready to go. We think we have a blend of older guys and young guys, not a lot of guys in between, but the future looks very bright for those freshmen that I mentioned."
The Michigan defense has a lot of talent in the front seven and with safety Jabril Peppers, who missed part of last season with an injury.
"Peppers is a good player. I know they missed him last year when he got hurt. He will also probably do some punt and kickoff returning for them possibly. As I mentioned, the [defensive] coordinator [D.J. Durkin] is from Florida. And what you saw from Florida all of last year is going to be a big influence on what they do this year, which was mixing an odd and even front, a lot of middle close secondary stuff as opposed to two-high safety or single-high safety, pressure and zero blitzes in the red zone. They are things that aren’t really that out of the ordinary, but we’ve been putting stock into what Florida did last year. And of course, we were watching Michigan tape for personnel matchups for the guys they have returning."
The Utah football team came out of fall camp great health-wise with no serious injuries.
"I think we came out of camp probably as good as you could hope for. I can’t recall a guy we lost --- nothing season-ending --- but just bumps and pulls here and there. We came out of camp, I would say, maybe as good as we ever have from a health standpoint."
Whittingham was asked what common theme there is in a Harbaugh coached team:
"Tough, hard-nosed, power-run game, west coast flare to the offenses. Play-action pass has been a pretty big part of what he’s done. But overall, just toughness. Also the use of tight ends and fullbacks, not that they have more than one fullback on the field, but one fullback. In this day and age, most schools aren’t even recruiting a fullback and they have several on their roster. And the use of multiple tight-end shifting motion, moving those guys around to try to create a bit of disorientation on the defense or get you out-flanked. We have to be ready for all of that stuff."
Safeties coach Morgan Scalley will wear many different hats this football season with the addition of being named the special teams coordinator in addition to his duties as safeties coach and recruiting coordinator.
"Even though we split it up [last year], you need a point man that everything runs through. I felt that Morgan was ready to take on that additional responsibility. He was also considered for the defensive coordinator spot when it was open as well, but the same basic structure is in place as far as that he will be the lead coach for all four major functions [punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return], but you still need a guy who puts it all together and is the spearhead of what you’re doing. I thought it was time and Morgan had earned the opportunity to take that on."
While a lot has changed for the Michigan team from last year, there are still things the Utah team can take away from their win against Michigan last season at the Big House.
"Well first of all, we matched up pretty well against them physically. I thought we stood in there and slugged it out toe-to-toe. [Michigan’s head coach last year] Brady Hoke is a coach who likes a physical brand of football as well. If nothing else, [we can take away] the confidence that we played these guys toe-to-toe last year and came out alright. Each year is a new entity and set of circumstances. Matchups are different. They lost guys, we lost guys. They added guys, we added guys. The dynamic can change considerably, but the one thing we can take away is that we played these guys before and we fared pretty well."
Utah has a great history of return men with players like Shaky Smithson, Reggie Dunn, and Kaelin Clay. The Utah football team will have to replace Clay's dynamic return skills. Clay returned a punt for a touchdown last season against Michigan.
"We’ve had some good players [in the return game] come through here. A lot of them had opportunities in the NFL. I think Kaelin Clay might end up returning punts for the Tampa Bay Bucs this year. That has been a weapon for us. Last year, special teams, not only the return game but the punting game and placekicking game, were all outstanding. Ideally, we hope that happens again so we keep that run up. You can go back to Shaky Smithson and Reggie Dunn and of course last year with Kaelin, we’ve had a lot of good guys as I mentioned. We think that we have the right guys doing it so we just have to see how they respond when the lights are on and they get the chance live."
A former Ute knows a little about the coach Utah will be facing on Thursday, quarterback Alex Smith, who played for Harbaugh in the NFL for the 49ers.
"I haven’t talked to Alex for a little bit, but I plan on talking to him this week just to visit with him and see how he’s doing. We try to keep in touch with all of our NFL guys as often as we can, but nothing very recently."
There is a lot of fanfare around the game on Thursday, but the Utah coaching staff and team is treating it like just another game.
"This game is no more significant than any other Pac-12 game or any other game. They all count as one. What’s significant in a respect is, like I mentioned, to have Michigan leave the ‘Big House’ [Michigan Stadium] and come here to play. That would have never happened five or six years ago and beyond. Maybe you’d see it happen way back, I don’t know what the situations were then, but in recent history that is something that is significant but as far as a big game, I don’t think it’s any bigger than Oregon, USC, UCLA or Fresno State. We have to take them one game at a time. That’s our focus right now. Like I said earlier, our guys have been in a lot of big games in a lot of big venues and handled it very well. Michigan is steeped in tradition, one of the most storied programs in all of college football. It’s certainly a little bit different, quite a bit different, as far as your mindset back in January as opposed to maybe opening up with a lesser opponent. But as far as how we treat it and the importance of it, it’s all the same. I hope it’s a record crowd and I hope they see something unique. That’s nothing but speculation. I have nothing to back that up, other than tickets are hard to get right now."
Also check out our interview with Booker, be sure to listen to his comment in regards to Utah being called a "cupcake" by Popular Mechanics.