Utah Runnin' Utes (2000: 4-7)
The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.
Coach and programAfter tying for the first ever Mountain West Conference title in 1999 and enjoying a run of nine straight non-losing seasons with five bowl games in the 1990s, last year was supposed to be the big one for Utah football.
With several key players returning from a 9-3 Las Vegas Bowl-winning season, huge things were expected from the 2000 Utes. Heck, some folks were even talking about an undefeated season with three seemingly beatable Pac-10 opponents to open the season and home games against the best MWC teams.
Instead, the season turned into a disaster for the Utes right from the get-go. They ended up losing those opening three games to middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 teams -- Arizona, Washington State and California -- and kept getting worse once league play began. And a 10-3 loss at New Mexico showed the ineptitude of the Ute offense.
After that disappointing season, many were calling for a change at the top, despite Ron McBride’s success over the previous decade with no losing seasons since his first year in 1990 and an overall mark of 75-53. Instead, changes were made at the next level down and four assistants either left or were shoved out the door, including a couple of longtime coaches.
Unfortunately, the Utes don’t have a battle-tested experienced quarterback in the program with Lance Rice, who played in the last four games, joined by two quarterbacks who show a lot of potential but have no experience. The Utes appear stocked with good running backs and have several top offensive linemen back. With Steve Smith gone, the receiving corps could be a little thin. More players are gone from the defense, which carried the team for most of last season
McBride, who at 61 doesn’t have a lot of years left, has never worried about any pressure from unhappy fans. But this could be a make or break year for McBride. Ute fans as well as McBride’s superiors may not tolerate another losing season.
OffenseRice, a 6-2, 193-pound sophomore, would appear to be the logical starter heading into this year after performing admirably with 42 of 86 completions for 625 yards and four touchdowns. However, the Utes are keeping the job open until fall because of a couple of heralded quarterbacks who sat out last year and played on the scout team.
Sophomore Ryan Breska (6-4, 209) is a big left-hander who transferred from Purdue because he didn’t want to play behind All-American Drew Brees. Then, there’s redshirt freshman Brett Elliott (6-3, 193), considered one of the top quarterback recruits in school history after passing for 2,970 yards and 32 touchdowns his senior year at Lake Oswego High in Oregon.
Like the quarterback position, the running back spot was in disarray for much of last season until Adam Tate (6-1, 229) was given the opportunity. In his first start against Air Force, he picked up 112 yards on 21 carries with one touchdown. He followed that with a 133-yard effort against Utah State and 104 yards against San Diego State.
By the end of the season, Tate had rushed for 660 yards on 160 carries, scored seven touchdowns and earned All-MWC second-team honors.
Senior Cliff Russell (6-0, 184) is the fastest player on the team and could be the fastest ever to play at Utah (he was once clocked at 4.25 in the 40). Last year he led Utah with 37 receptions, despite missing four games with a broken arm, and was also second on the team in receiving yards with 517 and with three touchdowns.
Senior tight end Michael Richardson (6-2, 271) is known as Mr. Do-Everything for the Utes. Last year he started six games at right guard, three at center and one at tight end.
Defense and special teamsMWC Freshman of the Year Jason Kaufusi (6-3, 249), a sophomore, has been moved from his rush end position to stud linebacker where the Utes had a hole to fill.
Junior Sheldon Deckart (6-2, 239) was the Utes’ second leading tackler last year, playing the middle linebacker position, but he was moved outside to rover during spring ball.
The only player with any starting experience in the secondary is sophomore Arnold Parker (6-2, 210), who started a few games at safety and was the Utes’ main nickel back last year. He will be the strong safety this year and the coaches are expecting big things from him.
Mention the word “kicker’’ around McBride and he may start twitching. McBride has always been wary of kickers and some of their quirky behavior, but the last two years the inconsistent Ute kicking game has been a source of agitation for McBride and has cost the Utes the chance to win a few more games.
But guess what? A newcomer, Brian Lewis (6-2, 220), came in this spring and beat out both of Utah's veteran kickers. Lewis, a junior, is originally from St. George, Utah, but was the starting punter at Oklahoma before leaving for a two-year church mission.
Bottom lineThe Utes face a tough game Sept. 8 against Oregon, which is likely to be ranked in the top 20, or even the top 10, but otherwise their non-conference schedule isn’t overpowering with the likes of Utah State, Indiana and South Florida.
What concerns the coaching staff is a three-game stretch in September when the Utes must play Oregon, Air Force and Indiana all on the road. Three losses there could result in a loss of confidence as the Utes head into the meat of their conference season, which includes road games at Colorado State, UNLV and BYU, three of the league favorites.
With no dominant teams in the MWC, the Utes have the talent to beat any team in the league and with a little luck could even sneak away with a championship. But they have had a penchant for beating themselves in recent years and must avoid that habit to have any chance at a title.