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Kyle Whittingham is hardly pretending that Utah's 2004 season didn't happen, but he's not living in the past, either.
The Utes went 12-0 with a Bowl Championship Series victory, then lost coach Urban Meyer to Florida and quarterback Alex Smith to the NFL, so they are starting over in many ways.
"Last year's team was just that -- last year's team," said Whittingham, who was promoted to head coach from defensive coordinator. "In college football, each team takes on its own personality. There's a lot of turnover in college football, especially when you take a hit like we did."
Yet the Utes were so dominant in '04 that they can regroup and still contend in the Mountain West Conference, as long as a young quarterback develops steadily and some defensive leaders emerge. The Utes will enter the season with "a lot of unknowns," Whittingham said, but they also have the confidence that accompanies a 16-game winning streak.
At this time last year, Utah's coaches never imagined that Smith would jump to the NFL after his junior season. Neither did Smith. But after his remarkable year, he left the quarterbacking job to Brian Johnson, who threw only 21 passes as a freshman.
Johnson is athletic and intelligent and has a decent arm, but was recruited to play in former coach Urban Meyer's spread offense and was awarded the job in the spring with no competition. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig intends to keep some of Meyer's option package to utilize Johnson's ability.
Quinton Ganther was the No. 2 running back in a one-back scheme, yet he still gained 654 yards as a junior college transfer, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He's a strong, slashing runner.
Utah ranked third in the country in total offense (499.8) and scoring (45.3), largely because of the playmaking ability of receivers Paris Warren and Steve Savoy, both as pass catchers and runners in the option scheme. Without them, Utah will count on Travis LaTendresse and John Madsen.
Everything up front starts with center Jesse Boone. He's strong and smart and will anchor a line that should be the offense's strength.
Utah ranked second in the MWC in total defense (343.4) and scoring defense (19.5), but that performance was basically a bonus, because the offense was so potent. This year, the defense may become more important.
All-conference noseguard Steve Fifita, who recorded 4.5 sacks last season, is moving to tackle. The Utes will have to compensate for the loss of defensive end Marquess Ledbetter, who also had 4.5 sacks in '04 but will miss the '05 season with a torn tendon in his thigh.
Utah always seems to develop an active, athletic player at rover, and Spencer Toone is the latest star. He's a sideline-to-sideline player who has become an instinctive pursuer, having tied for second in the MWC with 115 tackles last season.
One unique element of Utah's defense is that the free safety is the featured player in the secondary. Morgan Scalley is gone, so the Ute coaches are asking junior Eric Weddle, who intercepted four passes and led the secondary in tackles (75), to start at his third position in three years after playing cornerback and strong safety.
Utah's offense was so efficient inside the 20-yard line that Meyer rarely even thought about kicking field goals. That will likely change this year, so the Utes need to find a kicker. Bryan Borreson, who has been bothered by a groin injury over the last two seasons, will have an opportunity to win the job back. Dan Beardall, who takes over the punting duties, also can placekick.
The return game is in good hands. Weddle averaged 10.5 yards on punt returns and Justin Walker averaged 32.6 yards on kickoff returns.
Meyer gave Utah's program such a jolt of energy and had such an aura in the community that it's natural to wonder whether Whittingham can sustain Meyer's success. It should be encouraging to Utah that Bowling Green has thrived in Meyer's absence. The Utes' defense may be strong enough to help absorb some of the offense's growing pains, and a strong September is critical.
If the Utes can win their first four games, they can extend the confidence they gained during a 12-0 season.