October 22, 2009

Mid-Season Report Card

Overall: Utah is off to a 5-1 start and a top-20 ranking. They have shown the tell-tale signs of a young team coming together under fire. Inconsistency, stretches of poor play, and penalties have plagued the Utes, burning them at times and keeping games much close than they really should be. Despite all the problems of a young team, the Utes have simply found ways to win games. Grade: B

Offense: The offense had the most learning to do, especially once Matt Asiata was lost for the season. Only three starters from 2008 returned, and most of the key contributors in 2009 had never been counted on being anything more than a role player. Everything is new to the Utes on offense, be it major college football or their role in the offense. The result has been an offense that gets better playing together each week, but goes through lengthy stretches seemingly every game where they can not sustain drives or score points. Ball security has been a major problem as the Utah offense has fumbled the ball 14 times and lost seven of those fumbles. Grade: B-

QB: Terrance Cain has played well for the most part, and has been exactly what was expected: a field general who will move the chains and limit mistakes in the passing game. Cain has been a surprise as a runner, but he has yet to do anything to really take the next step and become a star. Inconsistency costs Cain an A, but the potential is there just under the surface for him to break through. Grade: B

RB: The running game has been very good even without Asiata. Cain's running has kept defenses honest, and Eddie Wide has exploded onto the scene. Since taking over the starting duties, Wide has run for 341 yards and 2 touchdowns. Sausan Shakerin and Shaky Smithson are capable backups. Pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield need work, and fumbles (five, four lost) from the backs really hurt their overall score. Grade: B-

WR: Much was expected out of what is a talented, athletic group, but they have been somewhat of a disappointment outside of David Reed[db]. Drops have been a major issue and have been a big reason why the Utes have trouble extending drives; [db]Jereme Brooks, Aiona Key, and John Peel have all had bad drops that have cost the Utes another set of downs or points. Utah receivers have also fumbled five times and have lost three fumbles after the catch. The receivers have done a good job blocking for each other and for the running game, and have had some great individual plays, but for the most part the group has played slightly above average. The tight end position has not done anything to add or take away from the overall score, though Ben Hendy did score the first touchdown out of the group against UNLV. Grade: C+

OL: The play of the line has been a bright spot as seven players have combined to form a very solid group that has begun to gel the last few weeks. The line has been solid in the running game and very good in pass protection. They struggled early in short yardage and goal-to-go running, but that has improved the last few games. Spotty play on the right side by new starters Tony Bergstrom and Tevita Stevens has been cleared up some the last three weeks and they are not the liabilities they were in the first three games. Caleb Schlauderaff getting and playing healthy has really been a boost to the unit, the Utes had some issues up front early in the season when he was hurt. Zane Taylor has played extremely well at the center spot, and his athleticism has allowed Blake Miller and Dave Schramm to find unique ways to utilize his abilities, especially by pulling him to lead running plays which not many centers can do. Zane Beadles has been the star of the group, leading the line in overall grade while providing leadership on and off the field. Walter Watts has split time with Stevens at right guard, and he and Sam Brenner have proven they can provide solid depth when needed. Grade: B+

Defense: Utah's defense has been up-and-down this season, and despite statistics that are favorable have not played the way they are capable. As Kalani Sitake likes to say, his guys are not yet "playing Utah defense." Utah's run defense has been good one week but poor the next. Getting to the quarterback has not been easy, and there is passing room to be found. Penalties in particular have killed the defense; 19 first downs by opponents have come via the yellow flag. Even with substandard play by the Utes, opponents are not converting a high rate on third down or scoring many points against the "bend but don't break" defense. Grade: B

DL: The front four have not played up to expectations. Stopping the run has been an issue as has sacking the quarterback. Christian Cox has come out of nowhere to lead the Utes with 2.5 sacks as a pass rush specialist. Lei Talamaivao breaking his leg has hurt depth at defensive tackle and Utah misses his ability to press the pocket up the middle. Koa Misi has played well despite being slowed early with a back injury, and has spent a lot of time dropping in coverage instead of rushing the passer. Derrick Shelby has been disruptive, leading the team with 5 tackles for loss, but he has not found a way to get the quarterback to the ground with just 1.5 sacks despite several more opportunities. Grade: B-

LB: Linebacker play has been a bit of a disappointment, as has their use in the Utah scheme. While the unit has not played poorly, they have not played to their capabilities. Part of the problem has been the defensive line not occupying blockers in the run game; Utah's linebackers are recording tackles but are not attacking the line of scrimmage and making plays in the backfield. Utah's linebackers have just 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks on the season. There have been times the 'backers have been caught out of position on running plays or trailing well behind their man in the passing game. Stevenson Sylvester has not played up to his Sugar Bowl performance with just 1.5 tackles for loss and no sacks midway through the season. Grade: B-

CB: R.J. Stanford and Brandon Burton have been a decent pair of corners. Their coverage has been good for the most part and they have stepped up to play the run well. Burton and Stanford are tied with each other for the team lead with five pass breakups but neither has an interception. Penalties have been a frequent occurrence, especially with Stanford. Lamar Chapman has played well in the nickel spot and Justin Jones has the lone interception among corners and the only turnover from the position. Overall the coverage and support has been very good but costly mistakes can not be overlooked. Grade: B

S: Utah's safety play has been excellent. Robert Johnson has been playing like an All-American and is tied for the national lead with five interceptions. Johnson has also stepped up his play in the running game and has turned into a complete safety. Joe Dale has been slowed by injuries and will miss the next several weeks with a knee injury, but played extremely well himself through the first half of the season. Dale is fourth on the team in tackles and has contributed 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Dale's coverage has been as good as his tackling as he and Johnson form one of the better pairs of safeties in the country. Top backup Justin Taplin-Ross has also played well in his few snaps, recording nine tackles and three pass breakups. Grade: A

Special Teams: Utah's special teams play has been solid after getting off to a rough start. The place kicking has been solidified and the punting has been just above average. The return game could be better but has not been plagued by the turnover issues of a season ago. Utah has blocked three kicks on the season, matching their total from 2008. Grade: C+

K: Joe Phillips allowed Ute fans to breath after Ben Vroman missed three field goals against San Jose State. Phillips has been consistent, hitting all six of his field goal attempts. The coaching staff has been reluctant to push the limits of Phillips range and that hurts the overall score. Vroman has been an excellent kickoff specialist, and is in the top five nationally in both touchbacks and average yards per kick. Grade: B-

P: Sean Sellwood is an excellent punter when given room, but has struggled with directional punting and pinning opponents in their own territory. Sellwood is averaging 41.6 yards per punt but has four touchbacks in 28 punts while only having five punts downed inside the 20. Grade: C

KR/PR: Utah is just above the national average in both kick and punt returns, currently sitting at 41st and 40th respectively. Smithson leads the Utes in kick returns and has a respectable 23.6 yard average. DeVonte Christopher made his debut as a return man in the last game and responded with a 47-yard return, the Utes longest kick return of the season. Luke Matthews has been a solid return man with an 11.5 yard average and has shown the ability to break one if given the chance. Grade: C+

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