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Utah Utes football 2007: 3 phases of the game

QUARTERBACKS

Brian Johnson, 6-1, 210, Jr.

Tommy Grady, 6-7, 235, Sr.

3RD AND SHORT: Johnson has fully recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him in 2006. As a sophomore, Alex Smith's former understudy led the MWC in total offense and ranked fourth nationally. Johnson is now bigger, stronger and faster. He also has a coach's perspective after watching from the sidelines last season. In reserve, the Utes have Grady. He was the backup to Heisman Trophy winner Jason White at Oklahoma before transferring to Utah.

3RD AND LONG: It remains to be seen if Johnson can completely bounce back from the serious knee injury he suffered late in the 2005 campaign. Can the repaired knee withstand the rigors of full-time work? If not, Grady is a somewhat inexperienced senior. He appeared in just seven games last season and completed 7-of-14 passes.

RUNNING BACKS

Matt Asiata, 6-0, 235, Jr.

Darryl Poston, 5-11, 200, Sr.

Ray Stowers, 6-0, 223, Jr.

Darrell Mack, 6-0, 219, Jr.

3RD AND SHORT: Asiata. The junior college all-American, who rushed for 1,365 yards and 15 touchdowns at Snow last season, was brought to Utah for a reason. Asiata's arrival should greatly improve Utah's ground game. Poston led the Utes with 553 yards in 2006. Stowers and Mack are also in the mix with solid showings in camp.

3RD AND LONG: The Utes are banking on Asiata to make a smooth transition from the junior college ranks. He's the only running back Utah has to top 1,000 yards in a season since graduating from high school. Poston, Mack and Stowers have combined to net 932 yards on 251 collegiate carries.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Kyle Gunther, 6-4, 304, Sr.

Zane Beadles, 6-4, 312, So.

Robert Conley, 6-1, 316, Jr.

Dustin Hensel, 6-7, 320, Jr.

Corey Seiuli, 6-3, 320, Jr.

Walter Watts, 6-2, 300, Fr.

Zeke Tuinei-Wily, 6-4, 308, So.

3RD AND SHORT: Utah has plenty of veterans to protect quarterback Brian Johnson. The Utes also have plenty of muscle and experience to produce a surge up front. Gunther is the man in the middle. The senior center is a leader who was elected to be a team captain. Conley has all-conference credentials, and Beadles is a player to watch.

3RD AND LONG: Losing all-conference left tackle Jason Boone to a season-ending knee injury in camp left a big void on the line. The Utes juggled things around a bit to compensate for the loss, but it remains to be seen if any continuity is lost. Only time, playing time, will tell.

TIGHT ENDS

Matt Sims, 6-1, 251, Sr.

Colt Sampson, 6-4, 250, Jr.

3RD AND SHORT: Sims and Sampson are back. Both played in all 13 games for the Utes last season and have a good understanding of how the position fits into Utah's scheme. Sims caught four passes for 62 yards a year ago. Sampson had three receptions, including a pair of touchdowns, for 18 yards.

3RD AND LONG: Hard to tell. Though emphasized more so than in recent years, tight end is still a quiet position at Utah. The lack of experience could easily be listed as a concern. However, it remains to be seen if there's any significance to it.

RECEIVERS

Brent Casteel, 5-10, 195, Jr.

Brian Hernandez, 6-0, 183, Sr.

Derrek Richards, 6-0, 183, Sr.

Marquis Wilson, 6-0, 183, Sr.

Freddie Brown, 6-0, 183, Sr.

Bradon Godfrey, 6-0, 183, Sr.

3RD AND SHORT: The "six-pack" is loaded with talent and experience. They combined for 210 receptions and 21 touchdowns last season. Richards topped the team with 60 catches and 717 yards, while Casteel scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. Hernandez is healthy for the first time in years and has displayed impressive speed in camp.

3RD AND LONG: Good luck finding one. All six of Utah's top receivers are back. If there's a weakness, it would likely be the distraction caused by Wilson's off-the-field woes. It doesn't appear to be an issue, however, for a group that has worked hard to bond with Brian Johnson during the offseason. Question is, will there be enough action to keep all six receivers content?

DEFENSIVE LINE

Martail Burnett, 6-3, 262, Sr.

Gabe Long, 6-3, 290, Sr.

Kenape Eliapo, 6-0, 303, So.

Greg Newman, 6-4, 260, Jr.

Aaron Tonga, 6-2, 290, Jr.

Paul Kruger, 6-5, 255, Fr.

Koa Misi, 6-3, 263, So.

3RD AND SHORT: The tradition continues. Utah's defensive front is loaded and ready to go again. Long and Eliapo are poised to step into the starting tackle roles held by Paul Soliai and Kelly Talavou a year ago. Tonga is expected to be in the rotation. Burnett is an all-conference candidate at open end, while Newman is a force on the other side.

3RD AND LONG: Experienced depth is lacking. That's not to say, however, that the Utes have a shortage of talent. Utah has traditionally used a rotation system, and several players are competing for reserve roles. The surplus of new faces could prompt a lengthy search for the right combination to get the job done.

LINEBACKERS

Joe Jiannoni, 6-0, 235, Sr.

Kyle Brady, 6-1, 234, Sr.

Malakai Mokofisi, 6-2, 243, Sr.

Stevenson Sylvester, 6-2, 220, So.

3RD AND SHORT: Three fifth-year seniors — Jiannoni, Brady and Mokofisi — are expected to man the starting positions. The trio brings a wealth of experience to the middle of the defense. Jiannoni, a team captain, made 92 tackles last season and is an all-conference candidate. Sylvester, a sophomore, is expected to see a lot of action in reserve.

3RD AND LONG: Veteran depth is lacking with young players, mostly sophomores, backing up the veterans. As is the case with most positions, a key injury could be quite troublesome. Inexperienced reserves would be thrown into duty with unpredictable results. Bottom line, Utah's starters need to stay healthy — at least until the youngsters come of age.

CORNERBACKS

Brice McCain, 5-9, 189, Jr.

Sean Smith, 6-3, 217, So.

RJ Stanford, 5-11, 180, So.

Elijah Wesson, 5-11, 175, So.

Terrell Cole, 5-11, 190, Jr.

3RD AND SHORT: McCain and Smith may be the most athletic corners in the conference. McCain, a junior, is a strong leader who will help Smith make the transition from offense. At 6-foot-3 with great speed and leaping ability, Smith will be a difficult challenge for opposing receivers to overcome. Stanford and Wesson will likely be the starters at nickel and dime, respectively.

3RD AND LONG: All-American Eric Weddle has moved on to the NFL — leaving a big void in Utah's secondary. His departure has left the Utes in a youth movement. Though somewhat inexperienced, the next wave of defenders is extremely athletic. So much so, in fact, that it may be enough to offset any growing pains.

SAFETIES

Steve Tate, 5-11, 195, Sr.

Joe Dale, 5-11, 197, So.

Robert Johnson, 6-3, 185, So.

R.J. Rice, 5-8, 183, Jr.

3RD AND SHORT: Tate was Utah's leading tackler a year ago with 102 stops. He's also a team captain. The mix of talent and leadership will help stabilize the secondary. Dale secured the other starting safety spot but was pushed in camp by Johnson and Rice. The keen competition should pay dividends down the road.

3RD AND LONG: Aside from Tate, the Utes lack experience at safety. Dale saw limited action a year ago — appearing in nine games and making six tackles. Rice made eight stops and played in 12 games, mostly as a special teams standout. Opposing offenses may test these guys early and often to see how they respond.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Louie Sakoda, PK/P, 5-10, 178, Jr.

Ben Vroman, K, 5-11, 187, So.

Clint Mower, LS, 6-0, 210, Jr.

Brent Casteel, KR, 5-10, 193, Sr.

Brian Hernandez, KR, 6-0, 183, Sr.

Brice McCain, KR, 5-9, 189, Jr.

3RD AND SHORT: Sakoda is racking up plenty of accolades as Utah's kicker and punter. The junior has handled both duties well and is expected to continue doing so. Vroman is ticketed to handle kickoff duties and was recently awarded a scholarship.

3RD AND LONG: The Utes' kicking game is vulnerable with Sakoda doing both the placekicking and punting. An injury to Sakoda would, for obvious reasons, be challenging to overcome — though Vroman is a talented option. The only real weakness for the Utes is a "what-if" scenario, as in what if Sakoda doesn't stay healthy.

3RD AND GOAL IF ...

The QB returns to form. The Utes would love to see starting quarterback Brian Johnson pick up where he left off in 2005. As a sophomore, Johnson led the Mountain West Conference in total offense and ranked fourth in the nation. The junior, who was elected a team captain, has brought renewed leadership to the offense.

The Utes avoid October pitfalls. For the past two seasons, Utah's conference championship hopes have dwindled thanks to back-to-back league setbacks in October. This year's schedule is more spread out with nonconference games sprinkled among the ones that count. In October, of course, the Utes will be tested in MWC play — a trip to league favorite TCU is followed by a visit to Colorado State.

Utah's offense cashes in on its experience. Johnson quarterbacks an attack that returns its top nine receivers from a year ago. As for the ground game, the Utes are banking on former Snow College star Matt Asiata to shore things up.

3 AND OUT IF ...

The schedule proves too tough. While the Utes publicly consider it an opportunity to showcase their talents, fact is, the team's 2007 schedule is brutal — even with Utah State on it. They'll meet the only two teams to beat USC last year in Oregon State (Aug. 30 in Corvallis) and UCLA (Sept. 15 at Rice-Eccles Stadium). Another big test is an Oct. 5 date at powerful Louisville.

Injuries mount up. Utah, like nearly every other team in the country, can become mediocre in a hurry if serious injuries mount. The loss of offensive lineman Jason Boone, a fifth-year senior and all-conference candidate, is proof positive that a key injury can occur. Another injury up front would be cause for serious concern as the Utes seek to protect QB Brian Johnson.

The opener is a lost cause. Last year's 31-10 season-opening setback at UCLA ended a streak of five consecutive 1-0 starts by the Utes. Though they managed to turn things around and finish 8-5 overall, that wasn't the case in 2000, when a loss to Arizona started an 0-4 spiral. Season-opening losses to Utah State in 1996 and 1997 also took the wind off the Utes' sails early.