Breaking down the Mountain West

Will BYU win a second straight conference crown? Will the return of QB Brian Johnson propel Utah? Will DEs Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz make TCU a dominant force? Take a look at what Mountain West questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Shaun Carney, RB Chad Hall, T Blaine Guenther, LB Drew Fowler, S/LB Julian Madrid, FS Bobby Giannini, S/LB John Rabold
Key losses

WR Victor Thompson, T Robert Kraay, FB Jacobe Kendrick, LB Joey Keller, CB Chris Sutton, DT Grant Thomas, PK/P Zach Sasser

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chad Hall* (784 yds)
Passing: Shaun Carney* (1,192 yds)
Receiving: Mark Root* (314 yds)
Tackles: Drew Fowler* (123)
Sacks: Julian Madrid* (4)
Interceptions: Julian Madrid* and John Rabold* (2)

Spring answers: 1. End game: Tight end will be a featured position in Air Force's revamped offense, and Travis Dekker has no complaints about it. Dekker, who had only four receptions last season, caught a 25-yard pass from Shaun Carney in the spring game. Reserve tight end Chris Evans also had a 56-yard reception. "The best matchup in football is the tight end against a linebacker or a safety," coach Troy Calhoun told The Colorado Springs Gazette. "If it's man coverage, they have a chance to eat somebody up. If it's zone coverage, they're a big ol' body to find in terms of a target in the middle of the field."

2. Ollis finally gets chance: With Chad Hall moving to wide receiver, senior Jim Ollis stepped into the top running back spot in spring practice. Ollis scored a touchdown on the final play of the spring game, barreling through defenders into the end zone. After serving sideline duty as Air Force's backup quarterback for three years, the explosive Ollis shifted to running back in a move offensive coordinator Tim Horton had long desired. "His timing as a quarterback was just bad at Air Force, because we had a guy (Carney) who had started since his freshman season," Horton told the Hendersonville (N.C.) News. "It was a constant debate between me and (former coach Fisher DeBerry), because I felt like Jim should be a starter in the backfield, but DeBerry didn't want to risk getting Jim hurt. … When I got back here, that was one of the first changes I suggested was to get Jim on the field."

3. Second chance helps Harrison: Ryan Harrison was supposed to take over the place-kicking duties last summer, but a suspension for violating academy standards barred him from games in 2006. The sophomore has turned the page this spring and looks ready to replace outgoing kicker Zach Sasser. Harrison kicked a 54-yard field goal and made 6 of 9 attempts against a live rush in a spring scrimmage. "I just can't wait to play," he told The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Fall questions: 1. Form a line: After losing three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, Air Force will see plenty of competition this summer. Blaine Guenther, who started last year at right tackle, moved to center this spring, creating openings on both edges of the offensive line. The Falcons had several experienced linemen miss time with injuries, including senior guard Caleb Morris. On the defensive side, Air Force needs production from Garrett Gilbertson, Ryan Kemp and Josh Clayton, all of whom played in seven or more games last year.

2. Hall shifts to wide receiver: In a move that would be considered blasphemous during the triple-option era, senior Chad Hall, the Falcons' leading rusher last season, was moved from running back to wide receiver this spring. Hall still will be used out of the backfield, but his primary role will be catching passes. After sitting out spring practice with an injury, Hall needs a quick and smooth transition to his new role in camp.

3. Receiving orders: After losing top wide receiver Victor Thompson, Air Force is looking for new targets in its expanded offense. Sophomore Sean Quintana emerged this spring, performing well in the spring game. The Falcons need to see similar strides this summer from Mark Root, the team's leading receiver last fall, and junior Spencer Armstrong, who averaged 16.2 yards per catch in 2006.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
RB Fui Vakapuna, RB Manase Tonga, WR Michael Reed, C Sete Aulai, LG Ray Feinga, LB Bryan Kehl, CB Ben Criddle, S Quinn Gooch
Key losses

QB John Beck, RB Curtis Brown, TE Jonny Harline, WR McKay Jacobson, OL Jack Kuresa, LB Cameron Jensen, LB Aaron Wagner, DT Hala Paongo
Top newcomer: QB Jason MunnsInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Curtis Brown (1,010 yds)
Passing: John Beck (3,885 yds)
Receiving: Jonny Harline (935 yds)
Tackles: Cameron Jensen (107)
Sacks: Cameron Jensen and Hala Paongo (5)
Interceptions: Justin Robinson (4)

Spring answers: 1. Hall monitor: Coach Bronco Mendenhall tabbed sophomore Max Hall as John Beck's successor at quarterback at the end of spring practice. Hall capped an excellent spring by completing 15 of 19 passes for 139 yards in the spring game. "He's capable and natural in terms of leading a football team," Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune. "In critical situations, he's very, very competitive and emotional." Mendenhall's decision became clear after junior-college transfer Cade Cooper sustained a foot injury in the spring game that will cost him the 2007 season. Cooper will redshirt this fall. Walk-on Brenden Gaskins, who completed 19 of 22 passes for 174 yards in the spring game, will back up Hall.

2. Man in the middle: Max Hall wasn't the only "quarterback" who stood out in spring drills. Needing to replace defensive signal caller Cameron Jensen, the Cougars turned to Kelly Poppinga. The senior had 36 tackles and two sacks at outside linebacker last year, and adjusted well to the middle linebacker spot this spring. He had five tackles in the spring game.

3. Collie back in the fold: Given all the offensive weapons lost from last year's team, the Cougars were grateful to see wide receiver Austin Collie on the field again. In 2004, Collie had 771 receiving yards and eight touchdowns -- both BYU freshman records -- before embarking on a two-year church mission. He led the team in both receptions (53) and touchdowns as a freshman. Collie re-adjusted well in spring practice and could be Max Hall's top target this season.

Fall questions: 1. Running backs return: BYU had a hard time evaluating its running backs this spring as both Fui Vakapuna and Harvey Unga missed practice, and Manase Tonga didn't play in the spring game. Vakapuna and Tonga form an effective combination to replace Curtis Brown, but Mendenhall will need a full complement of backs this summer. Ray Hudson's decision to transfer thins the running back rotation.

2. Cornerback battle: The cornerbacks will be under the microscope in camp as Mendenhall determines his starters. Both Ben Criddle and Brandon Bradley missed spring practice with injuries. Criddle, who had two interceptions last year, must develop into a shut-down defender in the pass-heavy Mountain West. The Cougars must replace Justin Robinson, who led the team with four interceptions last year.

3. Find solutions on special teams: The Cougars lost their place-kicker (Jared McLaughlin), their punter (Derek McLaughlin) and their top return men (Curtis Brown, Nathan Meikle and McKay Jacobson), leaving plenty of gaps to fill this summer. Mitch Payne has good kicking and punting range but has yet to perform at the collegiate level. Several players will compete on both return teams.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Caleb Hanie, RB Kyle Bell, WR Johnny Walker, WR Damon Morton, DE Jesse Nading, S Klint Kubiak, CB Joey Rucks, S Mike Pagnotta, CB Darryl Williams, P Jimmie Kaylor
Key losses

WR Dustin Osborn, T Clint Oldenburg, T Josh Day, LB Luke Adkins, LB Jon Radford
Top newcomer: C Tyler McDermottInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Gartrell Johnson* (305 yds)
Passing: Caleb Hanie* (2,427 yds)
Receiving: Damon Morton* (722 yds)
Tackles: Klint Kubiak* (90)
Sacks: Matt Rupp* (4)
Interceptions: Darryl Williams* (3)

Spring answers: 1. Running back depth solidified: Kyle Bell will be the top back this fall, but he gets hurt again, the Rams have plenty of insurance. Junior Michael Myers and redshirt freshman John Mosure impressed the coaches this spring. Mosure had 49 rushing yards on nine carries and scored a touchdown in the spring game. Myers had 28 yards in the game. Offensive coordinator Dan Hammerschmidt told the Rocky Mountain News that Myers and Mosure are "neck and neck" for the backup running back job. The Rams might move Gartrell Johnson, last year's leading rusher, to fullback.

2. Shift pays off: Colorado State moved Blake Smith from defensive tackle to end this spring, hoping that it would amplify his pass-rushing skills. Though Jesse Nading's return from mononucleosis could limit Smith's time at end, Smith showed plenty of promise. He had three sacks in the spring game and nearly picked up a fourth. After trimming 20 pounds, Smith should be a versatile asset on the Rams' line this fall.

3. Sandie solidifies interior line: Erik Sandie provided further evidence this spring that the Rams' defensive line will be a major strength. The senior defensive tackle finished with three tackles in the spring game, impressing coach Sonny Lubick. "Finishing 4-8 is not acceptable around here," Sandie told The Coloradoan. "All of our guys can play -- we've got a kick-butt team. I'm not going to make any promises, but we can be good this year."

Fall questions: 1. Kyle Bell's health: After sitting out contact drills in spring practice, Bell finally returns to live action this summer. How will his knee hold up? The running back missed all of last season after tearing his ACL before the opener. Colorado State needs a healthy Bell, who rushed for 1,288 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2005. "Kyle will be ready," Hammerschmidt told the Rocky Mountain News. "I think if we played a game right now, he could play. He's run all the drills and he's cutting like he always has."

2. Backer battles: Both outside linebacker spots are open after Colorado State lost Luke Adkins and Jon Radford, who combined for 137 tackles last season. Senior Nathan Pauly made a push in the spring game with two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Several young players, including Sedric Patterson, will compete for the jobs in camp.

3. Linemen return from injuries: Guard Adrian Martinez missed spring practice with a dislocated kneecap, and tackle Marvin Arnold sat out with a sprained ankle. After losing both starting tackles from last year's squad, the Rams need both players at full strength this summer. Redshirt freshman guard Brian Lepak stepped up this spring and should be in the mix at tackle. "Like a lot of first-year players, he's kind of hit a learning curve," offensive line coach Darrell Funk told The Coloradoan, "but there's no doubt that he's a player."

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 10, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Donovan Porterie (five starts), RB Rodney Ferguson, WR Travis Brown, WR Marcus Smith, T Devin Clark, DE Tyler Donaldson, CB DeAndre Wright, CB Quin Glover
Key losses

QB Chris Nelson, TE John Mulchrone, G Robert Turner, S Quincy Black, PK Kenny Byrd
Top newcomer: QB Blair PetersonInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rodney Ferguson* (1,234 yds)
Passing: Chris Nelson (1,435 yds)
Receiving: Travis Brown* (867 yds)
Tackles: Quincy Black (114)
Sacks: Tyler Donaldson* (5)
Interceptions: DeAndre Wright* (4)

Spring answers: 1. Kase closed: Cody Kase made a smooth transition to middle linebacker this spring after being slowed by a hamstring injury last fall. Kase, a two-year starter at outside linebacker, brings intelligence and natural leadership to the middle of New Mexico's defense. He collected six tackles in the spring game. "I don't think any of the other guys on defense around here want to admit it, but the linebackers really run this defense," he told The Albuquerque Tribune. "We've had a lot of linebackers picked in the NFL draft, so you know we must be doing something right around here."

2. Porterie gaining confidence: Returning starter Donovan Porterie felt footsteps for some of the spring, but the junior distanced himself as the starter by the end of practice. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, connecting several times with senior wideout Marcus Smith. Since New Mexico installed a new offensive scheme under coordinator Dave Baldwin, Porterie took more reps than starters usually take in spring ball. "He's (Baldwin) on me hard," Porterie told The Albuquerque Journal. "But he's going to make me the quarterback that I want to be."

3. Clark steps up: Ian Clark shifted from cornerback to Lobo safety and won the starting job with a strong spring performance. Clark had four tackles, one for loss, in the spring game. He had 22 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery last season for the Lobos.

Fall questions: 1. Limping line must step up: Three projected starters on the offensive line missed spring practice, and the Lobos had only nine healthy blockers at the end of practice, preventing the team from holding a normal spring game. Center Vince Natali was recovering from shoulder surgery, and right tackle Devin Clark sustained a severe ankle sprain in an early spring scrimmage. Though the injuries allowed several younger players to gain experience, New Mexico needs its first-string linemen to be healthy in camp, especially with another massive scheme change on offense. "It's a good time to have this type of problem, because it gives younger guys some experience and lets us see what they're capable of doing," coach Rocky Long told The Albuquerque Tribune.

2. Find backup for Porterie: Having insurance under center is paramount in college football, and New Mexico will continue to evaluate its reserve quarterbacks this summer. Bryan Clampitt showed the most promise, completing 8 of 14 passes for 66 yards in the spring game. Freshman Blair Peterson went 0-for-4 passing with an interception. Highly touted incoming freshman Brad Gruner joins the mix this fall. "Clampitt looked the best he's looked all spring tonight," Long said.

3. Still undecided at place-kicker: The battle to replace star Kenny Byrd was supposed to begin this spring, but fifth-year senior John Sullivan tore his ACL and junior Eric Garrison missed the spring game with a minor leg injury. Sullivan, a fifth-year senior, opted against surgery and will wear a brace and do rehabilitation exercises in hopes of playing this season. If he can't perform, Garrison or senior punter Jordan Scott will have to take over. Garrison showed good range in spring ball and kicked a 50-yard field goal in an April 28 scrimmage.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 10, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Kevin O'Connell, RB Atiyyah Henderson, RB Brandon Bornes, WR Brett Swain, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Antwan Applewhite, DE Nick Osborn, P Michael Hughes
Key losses

WR Ramal Porter, C Patrick Justman, LB Joe Martin, CB Donny Baker, S Reggie Grigsby, CB Terrell Maze
Top newcomer: QB Ryan LindleyInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Atiyyah Henderson* (797 yds)
Passing: Kevin Craft (737 yds)
Receiving: Brett Swain* (528 yds)
Tackles: Joe Martin (109)
Sacks: Antwan Applewhite* (6)
Interceptions: Donny Baker (3)

Spring answers: 1. O'Connell wins job, for now: Coach Chuck Long declared senior Kevin O'Connell the team's No. 1 quarterback heading into training camp. O'Connell, who has 21 career starts but was hampered by injury last season, competed with sophomore Kevin Craft throughout the spring. He capped the spring with an efficient performance in the spring game (13-for-17 passing, 153 yards, three touchdowns). But Craft played well, too, and the contest should begin again this summer. "He (O'Connell) needs to hold onto that position, because we like the competitiveness of Kevin Craft," Long told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "There's no guarantee that he'll start the first game, but he will go into camp as the No. 1."

2. Young defenders emerge: With only four returning starters on defense, San Diego State is putting its younger players on an accelerated learning curve. Several underclassmen stepped up this spring, including sophomore cornerback Aaron Moore, who had an interception in the spring game. Redshirt freshman linebacker Andrew Preston also impressed the coaches this spring. "We anticipate playing some true freshmen," Long said. "We've had some of the signees in here and they've been working hard. They feel like they're ready to go. It's just how fast they learn. But we have some good young talent."

3. Darren Mougey does it all: Far too valuable to be buried on the quarterback depth chart, Mougey auditioned at several offensive positions this spring. The gifted junior had a 23-yard reception in an April 21 scrimmage, and he caught a 12-yard touchdown strike from O'Connell in the spring game. "Mougey has had a nice camp," Long said. "We are going to look back (at spring practice) and talk this summer about where we want to put him and feature him."

Fall questions: 1. Find cornerbacks: Long admitted that cornerback is the Aztecs' biggest question mark heading into camp. San Diego State must replace Donny Baker and Terrell Maze, who combined for four interceptions and 16 pass breakups last season. Senior Scotty James and sophomore Aaron Moore ended spring ball as the starting corners, but Ray Patterson and Jose Perez will push them. "We're still working out that corner position," Long said. "That's still up for grabs so to speak heading into the fall."

2. Whitley Fehoko's fate: After spending most of spring practice with the second-string offensive line, Whitley Fehoko was rumored to be transferring schools. Long dispelled the speculation, saying he hasn't released anyone from their scholarship and that Fehoko had not spoken with him about transferring. Fehoko started six games last year at guard and was the only member of the 2006 recruiting class not to redshirt. "It's all talk at this point," Long told The Union-Tribune. "I'm not saying there won't be attrition, but not at this time. … He's part of the second unit right now, but he's still fighting it out. It's not always easy for guys who have started some games to have to go back and earn the job again."

3. Revive the tight end spot: San Diego State's tight ends had almost as many surgeries (5) as receptions (9) last season, leaving the offense without a key weapon. The misfortune continued this spring, as Lance Louis missed spring ball while recovering from a knee injury. Senior Steve Schmidt ended spring practice as the No. 1 tight end after catching two passes in the spring game. "Steve's a really good player," tight ends coach Toby Neinas told the North County Times. "He's weight-room strong, but there's a difference in the kind of strength he has when he puts his hands on you out here. He'll shake the teeth right out of your head."

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Aaron Brown, G Matty Lindner, C Blake Schlueter, WR Donald Massey, DE Tommy Blake, DE Chase Ortiz, LB Jason Phillips, S Brian Bonner, CB Rafael Priest, CB Nick Sanders
Key losses

QB Jeff Ballard, RB Lonta Hobbs, WR Quentily Harmon, WR Michael DePriest, T Herb Taylor, S Marvin White, DT Jarrarcea Williams, PK Peter LoCoco
Top newcomer: CB Jeremy KerleyInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Aaron Brown* (828 yds)
Passing: Jeff Ballard (2,394 yds)
Receiving: Quentily Harmon (791 yds)
Tackles: Marvin White (86)
Sacks: Tommy Blake* (7)
Interceptions: Marvin White (4)

Spring answers: 1. Brown ready to run: The search for TCU's next quarterback continues, but Aaron Brown locked down the top running back position after a strong spring. Brown, who split carries with Lonta Hobbs last season, ended the spring with a 93-yard rushing performance in a scrimmage against the first-team defense. He broke free for a 47-yard burst, setting up his team's only touchdown. "Aaron's got to keep going and keep getting better," offensive coordinator Mike Schultz told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "He's on track, and if he keeps himself going, he's got a chance to be pretty competitive next year."

2. Follow the leader: Everyone knows about Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, but TCU had several new defenders claim front-line roles this spring. Senior linebacker David Hawthorne sparkled in practice after ranking sixth on the team in tackles last year. Strong safety Brian Bonner also emerged as a leader in the secondary. "I don't think many people pay attention to Hawthorne, I don't think many people play attention to Bonner," coach Gary Patterson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "These are the guys who do all the things you need them to do on a daily basis."

3. Safety first: Patterson wanted to build depth at safety this spring, and Stephen Hodge stepped up. Hodge, a reserve who made 30 tackles last year and earned special teams player of the week honors on Nov. 18, will contend for a starting spot this fall.

Fall questions: 1. Quarterback competition continues: No decisions were made on Jeff Ballard's successor at quarterback after Andy Dalton and Marcus Jackson competed this spring. Neither quarterback stood out in the final scrimmage, as they combined to complete only 7 of 31 passes for 40 yards. Jackson threw two interceptions, while Dalton threw an 8-yard touchdown to Marcus Brock. "We need to play with more poise," Schultz said. "We can't have the mistakes. We've got to manage the game a little bit better. I see them getting better every day, but it's small things."

2. Give and receive: Patterson doesn't hide the fact that wide receiver is his team's biggest question mark after the loss of Quentily Harmon, who caught 18 more passes than any returning player. Several receivers will be spotlighted this summer, including Donald Massey and Brock, who caught a touchdown in the spring game. "We have to find somebody that can step up and get that done, but it may be by committee," Patterson said. Patterson also wants to see more physical play out of Shae Reagan and his other tight ends.

3. Line dance: The offensive line isn't a major concern, but TCU needs projected starters Matty Lindner and Heath Raetz to be healthy after both players missed spring practice with knee injuries. Center Blake Schlueter impressed Patterson this spring, but with a new quarterback taking over, TCU can't afford any hiccups up front.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Rocky Hinds, WR Ryan Wolfe, WR Casey Flair, C Joe Hawley, LB Beau Bell, DE Jeremy Geathers, LB Jason Beauchamp, PK Sergio Aguayo
Key losses

RB Erick Jackson, RT Marco Guerra, CB Eric Wright, S Jay Staggs, DT Howie Fuimaono, P Kip Facer
Top newcomer: S Shane HortonInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: David Peeples* (519 yds)
Passing: Rocky Hinds* (2,148 yds)
Receiving: Ryan Wolfe* (911 yds)
Tackles: Jay Staggs (87)
Sacks: Jeremy Geathers* (5.5)
Interceptions: Jay Staggs (3)

Spring answers: 1. Backup plan: With Rocky Hinds nursing a knee injury, Travis Dixon stepped in at quarterback and had a strong spring. In addition to showcasing his running ability, Dixon emerged in the spring game, leading the Scarlet team on a game-winning 75-yard scoring drive. He moved ahead of junior Dack Ishii for the backup quarterback job and could challenge Hinds. "I've still got to compete coming into fall camp," Dixon told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Spring ball's not it."

2. Summers time: Dixon wasn't the only player to capitalize on increased repetitions this spring. Junior-college transfer Frank Summers made a push to be UNLV's starting tailback after David Peeples missed spring ball with a shoulder injury. After a slow start, Summers finished strong. The 240-pound back rushed for 28 yards and a touchdown in the spring game but was held out as a precaution -- a testament to his value -- on the final drive.

3. On Pointer: After losing star cornerback Eric Wright to the NFL, UNLV coach Mike Sanford was thrilled to see freshman Quinton Pointer emerge this spring. Pointer intercepted a Jarrod Jackson pass in the spring game and returned it 18 yards to the end zone. The cornerback spots are open entering the fall and Pointer, arguably UNLV's fastest defensive back, could claim one.

Fall questions: 1. Health of quarterback Rocky Hinds: After missing spring practice with a partially torn ACL, Hinds is expected to lead the offense this summer. But any health concerns must be put to rest, especially after the strong performance of backup quarterback Travis Dixon this spring. Last year, Hinds became UNLV's first 2,000-yard quarterback since 1997, but he threw 13 interceptions and only eight touchdowns.

2. Line dance: With center Joe Hawley the only offensive linemen to have locked up a starting job, there will be plenty of competition in camp. The tackle spots appear set as Richie Plunkett and Johan Asiata are close to claiming top jobs. The biggest questions come at guard. Redshirt freshman Ramsey Feagai is competing against Tim Goins on the left side and against Mike McKiski and Perry Eppenger on the right side.

3. Defensive tackle: Junior Jacob Hales occupies one starting spot, but UNLV must find someone to line up beside him. Elton Shackelford is a strong candidate after making 25 tackles in 11 games last season. He will compete against fellow senior Faauo Faga, who broke his foot in April and will be out 6-8 weeks, as well as redshirt freshmen Tim High and Malo Taumua.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 10, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Brian Johnson (2005 starter), WR Brent Casteel, WR Derrek Richards, RT Jason Boone, LB Joe Jiannoni, DE Martail Burnett, S Steve Tate, PK/P Louie Sakoda
Key losses

QB Brett Ratliff, LT Tavo Tupola, CB Eric Weddle, DT Kelly Talavou, DT Paul Soliai, S/LB Casey Evans
Top newcomer: QB Griffin RoblesInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Darryl Poston* (553 yds)
Passing: Brett Ratliff (2,796 yds)
Receiving: Derrek Richards* (717 yds)
Tackles: Steve Tate* (102)
Sacks: Martail Burnett* (5.5)
Interceptions: Eric Weddle (7)

Spring answers: 1. Johnson reclaims the reigns: After redshirting last season while recovering from knee surgery, quarterback Brian Johnson is back to lead Utah's offense. Johnson quickly acclimated, completing 7 of 8 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. He spread the ball to several of his weapons, including Brent Casteel and Bradon Godfrey, who combined for 10 receptions in the game. "It took a little time to knock the rust off early in spring practice, but once we got going, things started to work really well," Johnson told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The running game started spring practice a little ahead of us, but the quarterbacks and receivers got a lot better."

2. Smith adjusts to cornerback: Sean Smith's transition from wide receiver to cornerback accelerated this spring as Utah tried to replace superstar Eric Weddle. Smith, who has moved from running back to wide receiver and now to cornerback, impressed the coaches with his size (6-foot-2) and athleticism. "When we gave him some reps, it was clear he could be a special corner," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The most encouraging thing is his ability to be consistent. He hasn't had the ups and downs that a lot of guys have in practice."

3. Safety first: Smith showed potential to fill a gap at cornerback, and Joe Dale did the same at safety. Dale had a sack and recovered a fumble in the spring game, elevating his stock entering camp. He made six tackles in nine games last season but should be in the mix to start alongside Steve Tate at strong safety. "I think we solidified the depth chart, which was important," Andersen told the Deseret Morning News. "There's still some question marks going into fall like there always is, but we're much closer."

Fall questions: 1. Running back undecided: Utah struggled to get a good read on its running backs this spring, as Darryl Poston broke his foot and Mike Liti decided to end his career because of a knee injury. Junior college transfer Matt Asiata doesn't join the Utes until preseason camp, leaving plenty of questions in the backfield. Junior Darrell Mack will contend for playing time after rushing for 108 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries in the spring game. "Once we get Matt Asiata in the fall, and Darryl (Poston) back, we'll know a lot more," coach Kyle Whittingham told the Salt Lake Tribune.

2. Inside men: The interior defensive line will be examined throughout camp as Utah tries to replace starting tackles Kelly Talavou and Paul Soliai, who weighed a combined 653 pounds. Former reserves Gabe Long and Kenape Eliapo are the frontrunners to take over on the inside, but the Utes want a four-man rotation that likely will include Zeke Tuinei-Wily and Pauli Latu. "We've still got some work to do with the backups," Andersen told the Deseret Morning News. "You can't ask Kenape and Gabe to play 70 snaps in a game."

3. Marquis Wilson's status: Wilson, who ranked fourth on the team in receptions (25) last season, remains suspended indefinitely after being charged with misdemeanor drunken driving and possession of alcohol by a minor. Though Utah still has plenty of talent at wide receiver, Wilson's deep-play potential will be missed if he does return. Wilson started six games last season. "We hope to get him back," Whittingham told the Deseret Morning News.

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Karsten Sween, WR Michael Ford, TE Wade Betschart, RB Wynel Seldon, LB Ward Dobbs, CB Julius Stinson, CB Michael Medina, P Billy Vinnedge
Key losses

LT Chase Johnson, WR Tyler Holden, G Jason Karcher, DE Corey Mace, SS John Wendling, FS Dorsey Golston, DT Mike Groover
Top newcomer: RB James DavisInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Wynel Seldon* (610 yds)
Passing: Karsten Sween* (1,304 yds)
Receiving: Michael Ford* (674 yds)
Tackles: John Wendling (78)
Sacks: Aaron Robbins (4)
Interceptions: Dorsey Golston (4)

Spring answers: 1. Scoring a Hetrick: Starting quarterback Karsten Sween was held out of contact drills this spring following minor knee surgery, opening the door for Ian Hetrick. The junior college transfer took every snap in the spring game, completing 20 of 31 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns. Hetrick twice found tight end Jesson Salyards for touchdowns and completed passes of 71 yards and 55 yards to senior Hoost Marsh. "Ian was big-time today," coach Joe Glenn said. "He had an opportunity to show what he could do, and he was terrific. He has improved, especially during the second half of spring training. He has certainly demonstrated how solid he is."

2. Greg Bolling emerges: Bolling ignited in the first spring scrimmage, catching two touchdown passes. The sophomore wide receiver played in 10 games last season but caught only one pass for no yards. "You're starting to see what I saw in every practice last year," Glenn told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. "Maybe because of his youth, (Bolling) didn't get into the flow of things last season. But you're seeing what I'm seeing now."

3. More depth at receiver: While Bolling sparkled early in spring ball, Marsh dominated the spring game, racking up 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns. In addition to the long scoring catches, Marsh nearly completed a pass to senior Darion Donnelly (the play was nullified by a penalty). Glenn calls Marsh "as versatile as any player on the team. He is a dangerous receiver, and we are going to do everything we can to get him more opportunities downfield."

Fall questions: 1. Crossing guards: Glenn called the guard position "the most competitive area of the offense, and maybe of the team." Four players are competing for two spots and only one of them, Russ Arnold, is not a freshman. Arnold and Erik Kottom can play guard or center, boosting their stock for the fall. Sam Sterner and Jack Tennant are the frontrunners to start, but Tennant missed the final two weeks of spring practice with a knee injury. "We expect (Tennant) or Arnold to be the starter at right guard," Glenn said.

2. Special teams headache: Despite handling most of the place-kicking duties as a freshman last fall, Aric Goodman decided to transfer from Wyoming in May. Goodman led Wyoming in scoring (48 points) and made 10 of 16 field-goal attempts last season. He also missed a crucial extra-point attempt at Virginia that led to a 13-12 loss. Sophomore Jake Scott is expected to take over after competing against Goodman in spring ball.

3. Tight spot: Wyoming struggled to evaluate its tight ends since starter Wade Betschart (shoulder) and backups Chris Sundberg (broken arm) and Jesson Salyards (concussion) missed part or all of spring practice with injuries. Glenn got a good look at sophomore Greg Genho and freshman Joe Evers, but he needs his top three tight ends healthy for camp. "This is a group that really excites a coach," he said. "They are big, physical and all good athletes."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.