Utah must prove it belongs in new Pac-12
SALT LAKE CITY – Utah senior Tony Bergstrom rolled out of practice this week in his beat-up 1999 Ford Escort, testament to the blue-collar family man that he is.
That's about all that's old at the university high on the hill in Salt Lake City.
The Utes are in the new Pac-12 Conference, building a $30 million football center, are part of a record $3 billion TV package and no longer content to be a BCS buster. They're in the spotlight, a fact that surely will set in when they open conference play on the road Sept. 10 against USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"Oh, there's pressure, but excitement comes with that," said freshman running back Harvey Langi, who weighed signing at USC and Stanford but opted to stay in Utah, where he was a high school All-American. "We've got to realize the opportunity that's ahead of us. We've got to realize how many people are watching us and doubting us."
Utah, with 21 wins vs. BCS teams since the championship format began in 1998, is picked to finish anywhere from first to fifth in the Pac-12 South. Some look at the fact that the Utes drew the best possible schedule, avoiding powers Oregon and Stanford this first season.
Though Utah has gone 33-6 the past three years while competing in the Mountain West Conference, the Utes were just 1-2 against Top 25 competition last season and were outscored 101-13 in losses to TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State.
"There's a lot of unknowns," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged. "We're playing in a new conference, and against teams that we know very little about. But that works both ways."
Utah returns 13 starters, including a handful of players who are candidates for top national awards.
Bergstrom is on the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy after starting all 26 games at offensive tackle the past two years and not allowing a sack during the regular season.
Senior linebacker Chaz Walker is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, and junior wide receiver DeVonte Christopher is a potential candidate for the Biletnikoff Award.
Throwing to him will be quarterback Jordan Wynn, on the Davey O'Brien watch list after a sophomore season in which he completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,334 yards and 17 TDs.
No question he'll have to shoulder much of the load, even if it's on a shoulder he had surgically repaired Dec. 13.
Whittingham has had to limit Wynn's workload but expects him to be ready.
Brian Blechen, who moves from safety to linebacker after a standout freshman season, notices more than added strength and 10 pounds on his quarterback.
"What's changed is his team leadership," Blechen said of Wynn, like him another California kid who grew up watching Pac-10 games.
Wynn is more comfortable in the pro-style offense that new coordinator Norm Chow has installed, noting that he is getting back to what he used to do in high school. He also believes spending more time under center instead of in the shotgun will open up Utah's running game.
Who will carry the ball is a big question mark, up there with how to rebuild the secondary.
"If we couldn't find a guy who wasn't good enough, that would be a concern. We're just looking for separation between the guys," Whittingham said of the backfield.
Langi, who enrolled at Utah in January, was the first to ascend to the top of the depth chart at running back this summer but struggled in the first scrimmage. Whittingham also has junior college transfer John White IV, Tauni Vakapuna and former Rugby World Cup participant Thretton Palamo available if Langi isn't ready.
"He's just got to quit acting like a freshman and step up and do those things he did in high school that made him a great running back," Whittingham said of the 6-1, 225-pound Langi.
That a guy with 4.5 speed is wearing Utah red not USC cardinal goes back to the conference shake-up.
"I wanted to go over there, but knowing we were switching to the Pac-12 and knowing Norm was coming over here and switching to a ground-and-pound offense, it was a no-brainer to stay here," Langi said. "Why go across thousands of miles when I could stay home and have the same opportunities?"
First year or not, the Utes have made it a goal to represent the Pac-12 South in the conference championship, especially with USC not eligible because of NCAA sanctions.
"There's been a lot of talk and there still is a lot of talk," Bergstrom said. "We're just waiting for the talk to end and start playing."