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March 9, 2010
Utah looks to stay on winning track
Utah enjoyed great success in 2009 thanks to a strong mix of offense and defense. Utah answered big questions at quarterback, and also found a comparable replacement for star kicker Louis Sakoda in Joe Phillips.
Going into spring practice for this season, the offense looks to be in good shape but there are some holes to fill on defense.
Overall, though, Utah looks to be in good shape to continue the momentum the program has generated in recent seasons.
Here's a look at the Utes as they open spring ball.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Utah will be strong on the offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line returns four starters, and G Caleb Schlauderaff and C Zane Taylor are all-league caliber. The offense will be in the capable hands of sophomore QB Jordan Wynn, who will be able to hand off to a talented corps of running backs that includes 1,000-yard rusher Eddie Wide (1,069 yards). A senior, Wide led the MWC with 12 rushing scores last season.
HELP IS NEEDED
The Utes will look to replace all three starting linebackers, two starting receivers and both starting safeties. And those who have departed were productive. Linebackers Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright and Kepa Gaison combined for 204 tackles last season. Safeties Robert Johnson and Joe Dale combined for 118 stops, and Johnson had six picks, too. Receivers Aiona Key and David Reed combined for 107 catches and six TD grabs.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
DT James Aiono: Aiono, a former No. 1-ranked junior college player in the nation, originally signed with Utah in 2008. After getting his academics sorted out last season, Aiono will go through spring practice with the Utes and needs to show he was worth the wait.
CB Brandon Burton: Burton, a junior, started for the first time last season and impressed in leading the team in pass breakups with 10. Now, Burton is primed to break out in a secondary that needs playmakers.
QB Jordan Wynn: He didn't make his college debut until Oct. 31 last season. He started the last five games, capping the year by throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a MVP performance in a win over Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl. If he progresses as planned this spring, he is a future star.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
G Walter Watts: Watts, a senior, started the season opener in 2009, then lost his job to redshirt freshman Tevita Stevens. Watts has road-grader potential, and he needs to show this spring that he can be a valuable contributor -- and maybe even a starter -- this fall. If he struggles, he could lose his spot on the depth chart to junior college transfer Ron Tongaonevai.
Kyle Whittingham has guided the Utes to a combined 23-3 record, including a 14-2 mark in the Mountain West, over the past two seasons. To keep things humming along, Whittingham and his defensive coaches need to find seven new starters this spring. Finding three new starting linebackers is the key. The pieces are in place for an explosive offense as long as someone emerges as a go-to receiver.
Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.