Utah quarterback Travis Wilson's first goal this season is to stay healthy. His second? A Utes breakthrough in the Pac-12.
Utah has gone 5-7 in each of the past two seasons as the team has transitioned to the more competitive Pac-12, which the Utes joined in 2011. This season is already looking daunting, with a visit to Michigan and the Big House in the third game.
"I think there's a chance for this team to really show what we're capable of," Wilson said. "Yeah, we have a tough schedule and we're ready for it. We're ready for the challenge and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year. This team has the capability of doing that."
There was some concern that Wilson's career might be over last November, when — while being treated for a concussion — doctors uncovered a previous injury to an intracranial artery in his brain.
But it appeared in February that the artery was stable, and Wilson was allowed to participate in non-contact drills in the spring. In June, doctors cleared him for the season.
Wilson, who has started 16 games over the past two seasons, completed 133 of 237 passes for 1,827 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions for the Utes last season before his concussion.
While he's No. 1 on the depth chart, Wilson is seeing competition in fall camp from Kendal Thompson, a transfer from Oklahoma.
"He's always been a hard worker, but he is really taking it to another level in this offseason," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of Wilson. "I think part of it is the competition. I had to motivate Travis a little. I've always said the competition almost all the time is a good thing and a healthy thing for a team."
Utah hasn't had a quarterback to start an entire season since 2008 when Brian Johnson led the undefeated Utes to a Sugar Bowl victory.
Here are five more things to look for when Utah take the field this season:
TOUGH GOING: The Utes have what many consider one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Utah opens at home against Idaho State in a Thursday night game, before hosting Fresno State and visiting Michigan. In the Pac-12, the Utes have Oregon and USC at home this season, but they'll travel to UCLA and Stanford. As for Michigan, the Utes have been to the Big House twice before, losing in 2002 before winning in 2008 when Utah was undefeated. The Wolverines will visit Rice-Eccles Stadium for the 2015 season opener.
CHANGE AT THE (NEAR) TOP: Former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen is embarking on his first season as offensive coordinator for the Utes, inheriting a team that last season ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense with an average of 396.6 yards per game, and 10th in the league with 29.2 points per game. Whittingham said the team is embracing Christensen's speedy no-huddle offense: "Very comfortable. Dave's come in and done a great job transitioning. His philosophy is very much in line. That's going to be the biggest difference for our players," Whittingham said.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?: Whoever wins Utah's quarterback competition will likely make senior Dres Anderson, the leading returning receiver in the conference, a favored target. Anderson is the son of Flipper Anderson, a standout for UCLA — he was on the receiving end of QB Troy Aikman — and later in the NFL. The younger Anderson caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 18.9 yards per catch.
QUITE A KICKER: Sophomore kicker Andy Phillips is on the watch list for the Lou Groza award for the nation's top kicker. Last year as a walk-on, Phillips made 17 of 20 field goal attempts and was a perfect 41-of-41 for PATs. This fall Utah honored the effort by awarding a scholarship to Phillips, a competitive alpine skier with the U.S. Ski Team for four years until 2011.
EXPECTATIONS: Utah was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12's South Division, ahead of only Colorado, the league's other newcomer, in the preseason media poll. "Everybody had high aspirations," Whittingham said. "But we certainly are a better team this year. The issue is, how much better?"