Utah fans have heard it so many times before, they have to be more than a little wary when they hear talk that a WAC title may be on the horizon for this year's experienced squad.
They remember 1989 when the Utes had Scott Mitchell and had whipped BYU the previous November. Hopes were high, but Utah struggled to a 4-8 season. Then there was 1986 when the Utes were tabbed as title contenders only to fall flat on their faces with an embarrassing 2-9 debacle.The Utah faithful are holding their breath this year. The Utes have experience galore and perhaps more depth than ever. They have one of the top defensive players in the country in tackle Luther Elliss and one of the top returning quarterbacks in Mike McCoy (2nd in the nation in total offense). The schedule is extremely favorable, with no Nebraskas or Arizona States waiting to beat them up in the preaseason.
Could this be the year, on the 30th anniversary of their first and only WAC title, that the Utes finally break their drought and actually win the championship?
Ute coach Ron McBride isn't making any predictions, in fact he doesn't even claim to set winning the WAC and going to the Holiday Bowl as a goal, preferring to take the one-game-at-a-time approach. But he's plenty confident going into the season.
"We have an outstanding senior class," said McBride. "They've shown real leadership and taken charge of this football team. We have a chance to be a very good football team."
The Utes return 14 starters from last year's Freedom Bowl team as well as several other players who have starting experience the past couple of years.
Leading the way is Elliss, a Playboy preseason All-American and the preseason pick to be defensive player of the year in the WAC. Elliss has bulked up 35 pounds to 295 pounds this year and is looking for big things from the Utes.
"I think it could happen," said Elliss of winning the WAC title. "That's our ultimate goal. I think people out there respect us and have to be ready to play us."
McBride calls Elliss a "dominant player" with the speed to play outside and the strength to play inside.
"He's a special player. I've coached for 30 years and been around five first-round draft choices and he's better than any of them," said McBride.
Joining Elliss on the defensive line are Henry Kaufusi, a redshirt from Dixie College, and returning starter Bronzell Miller and sophomore Nate Kia. Louie DeCastro will see a lot action in a backup role.
Three starting linebackers return in Mark Rexford, a second-team all-WAC selection, who led the team in tackles, Derrick Stapley and Marcus Woods, a converted strong safety.
All four starters in the secondary were starters at one time the last two years. Patrick Boyd led the WAC in interceptions with six and will move from corner to strong safety, while Harold Lusk will return in the free safety position. Kareem Leary and Edwin Garrette, who both had their seasons shortened by injury, will start at the corners.
On the offensive side, McCoy is back to lead the offense after amassing 3,860 yards of passing last year with 21 touchdown passes. He has recovered from off-season surgery to repair a pinched blood vessel in his shoulder and has thrown well in practices so far.
"Our expectations are definitely higher this year," said McCoy. "I think a realistic goal is to go to the Holiday Bowl."
What could hurt the Utes more than anything this year would be a serious injury to McCoy. None of his backups has ever taken a snap of major-college football. Ryan Shea, a redshirt from Minnesota, and Brandon Jones, who played for North Summit and Snow College, are battling for backup duties.
While McBride says losing three top running backs in Jamaal Anderson, Pierre Jones and Keith Williams "leaves a large void," he isn't crying about this year's prospects. In Rob Hamilton, Charlie Brown, Sylvester Cooperwood and freshman Juan Johnson, the Utes have plenty of talent to choose from.
The receiving corps is bolstered by the return of Deron Claiborne, Henry Lusk and Curtis Marsh. Claiborne and Lusk both caught 42 passes last year and Lusk was the MVP of the Freedom Bowl for the Utes. Lusk will be Utah's do-everything man as he'll play tight end and fullback, in addition to slotback. JC transfer Rick Tucker is looking to fill the tight end spot.
Offensive line may be one of the Utes' strongest positions with three starters back in all-WAC center Lance Scott, second-team all-WACer Anthony Brown and four-year starter Roy Ma'afala. Kani Neves, a 300-pounder like Brown, was a part-time starter last year and will start at right guard.
The Utes have a good chance to get out of the gates fast, playing rebuilding Utah State, Idaho State picked for last in the Big Sky, and Oregon, picked for last in the Pac-10, in their first three games. They also get BYU at home in the season finale Nov. 19 in what many folks expect (hope?) to be for the WAC title.
Utah '94 schedule
Sep. 3 at Utah State 7 p.m.
Sep. 10 Idaho State 7 p.m.
Sep. 17 at Oregon 2 p.m.
Sep. 24 Wyoming 7 p.m.
Oct. 8 at San Diego St. 7 p.m.
Oct. 15 Hawaii 1 p.m.
Oct. 22 at Colorado St. Noon
Oct. 29 UTEP 1 p.m.
Nov. 5 at New Mexico 1 p.m.
Nov. 12 at Air Force Noon
Nov. 19 BYU 1 p.m.
Radio: KALL 910 AM
Utah's 1993 season (7-6)
Date Utah Opponent Opp. Site
Sept. 4 38 Arizona St. 0 Tempe
Sept. 11 31 Utah St. 29 Salt Lake
Sept. 18 41 Kansas 16 Lawrence
Sept. 25 12 Wyoming 28 Laramie
Oct. 2 17 Idaho 28 Salt Lake
Oct. 9 35 New Mexico 42 Salt Lake
Oct. 16 45 Texas-El Paso 35 El Paso
Oct. 23 38 Colorado St. 21 Salt Lake
Oct. 30 45 San Diego St. 41 Salt Lake
Nov. 6 30 Hawaii 41 Honolulu
Nov. 13 41 Air Force 24 Salt Lake
Nov. 20 34 BYU 31 Provo
Dec. 30 21 Southern Cal 28 Anaheim