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Utah Utes football: 5 things we know so far

Utes have big shoes to fill, but loads of talent to step in

Camp may be over for the University of Utah. That doesn't mean, however, that the Utes are completely ready for the upcoming season.

There's still work to do and things to iron out before the Sept. 3 season opener at home against Utah State.

"We're glad that we have 10 days left after (Saturday's) scrimmage to get ready because we need all of them," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "We've got a lot of guys here that have never played in a big-time Division I game. So we can use all the practice we can get."

While issues such as choosing a starting quarterback (between freshman Jordan Wynn and junior Terrance Cain) are still in doubt, several questions were answered in camp.

"First of all, we feel like we've got a good group of young defensive tackles," Whittingham said. "We've learned that."

Another resolved matter, he explained, is the offensive line.

Things are solidified.

"We've got a good plan," Whittingham said.

The kicking game, where the Utes need to replace All-American Louie Sakoda, was also an area of concern going into camp.

So, too, were a handful of other spots affected by graduation and departures to the NFL.

This much is clear ...

1. Young talent on D-line.

The future looks bright for the Utes on the defensive front. The depth chart includes several promising underclassmen.

Sophomore Lei Talamaivao has bounced back from a broken leg to reclaim his starting job at tackle. He'll likely be backed up by redshirt freshman Dave Kruger and true freshman Latu Heimuli.

The youth movement extends to nose tackle, where senior Kenape Eliapo is expected to be backed by Heimuli and sophomore Sealver Siliga.

On the ends, sophomore Derrick Shelby and junior Nai Fotu are in a starting rotation with senior Koa Misi. A back injury has sidelined Misi and may lead to Shelby and Fotu starting at end in the season opener against USU.

The top reserves at end are juniors Junior Tui'one and Christian Cox.

2. Solidified offensive line.

Replacing two Sugar Bowl starters in the trenches has been alleviated by the skills of the three returnees — left tackle Zane Beadles, center Zane Taylor and left guard Caleb Schlauderaff. The trio bring experience and size to a line being directed by a new position coach (Blake Miller) and offensive coordinator (Dave Schramm). Beadles, a senior, is an All-America candidate. Taylor and Schlauderaff are talented juniors.

They'll be joined as starters by right tackle Tony Bergstrom, a sophomore, and a combination of junior Walter Watts and redshirt freshman Tevita Stevens at right guard.

Whittingham said the group has worked hard and solidified, an important factor for a team breaking in a new starting quarterback.

Leading reserves include freshmen Sam Brenner and Derek Tuimauga, as well as seniors Tyler Williams and Viliamy Nau.

3. Kicking game.

Is there life after King Louie? The Utes will find out. They're hoping senior Ben Vroman (kicker) and redshirt freshman Sean Sellwood (punter) can fill the void.

Whittingham said things came together quicker than expected in camp.

"The kicking game appears to be in good hands. We'll find out," Whittingham said. "You never really know until you get into a game situation. But we've really liked the way that Sellwood and Vroman have performed during the practice format."

True freshman Nick Marsh is the backup at both spots.

Sakoda, who is still awaiting professional opportunities, is assisting the kickers and punters as a undergraduate assistant coach.

"As long as he's available we'd like to continue to use him," Whittingham said.

4. Corners covered.

After losing both of last season's starting cornerbacks (Sean Smith and Brice McCain) to the NFL, the Utes have enlisted a pair of athletic defensive backs — senior R.J. Stanford and sophomore Brandon Burton.

"They've done a nice job so far. R.J. is a proven commodity. He's played over half the snaps the last couple of years and so he's got a lot of experience," Whittingham said. "Brandon is a very talented kid. This is his chance to step up and show what his capabilities are."

Stanford and Burton, obviously, are stepping into pivotal roles.

"We did lose two great ones. Sean and Brice were both drafted into the NFL and doing very well to this point," Whittingham said. "They've got big shoes to fill. But so far, so good. We'll find out on Sept. 3 exactly where we are."

5. Quality depth.

The Utes are loaded at linebacker and wide receiver. Both positions are deep with talent and experience.

The linebacking corps is led by three seniors starters — Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright and Kepa Gaison. Former starter J.J. Williams is back after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is joined on a deep reserve corps featuring junior Chad Manis, as well as sophomores Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez on the depth chart.

On the receiver front, the Utes have eight potential contributors. The cast of targets includes David Reed, Jereme Brooks, Aiona Key, Luke Matthews, John Peel, Shaky Smithson, Elijah Wesson and DeVonte Christopher.

The group is being counted on to overcome the graduation loss of last season's top three receivers — Freddie Brown (77 catches), Bradon Godfrey (56 catches) and Brent Casteel (43 catches).

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com