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July 30, 2014

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With coach on hot seat, changes plentiful at Utah

Facts and figures on the Utah Utes:

Head coach: Ron McBride (75-53, 12th season)

2000 record: 4-7 (3-4, tied for 5th in Mountain West Conference)

Returning starters: 13

Player to watch: RB Adam Tate

Guy they'll miss: WR Steve Smith

Key game: Nov. 17 at BYU

Sun projection: 7th place

There will be a new look for Utah football in 2001 and it isn't on the sideline -- yet.

Under fire to juice up an offensive attack that finished just fifth in the Mountain West Conference with a 21.5 points per game average en route to a very disappointing 4-7 record, longtime Ute head coach Ron McBride shook up his coaching staff.

Gone are four Utah assistants, three of which were let go, including longtime McBride buddy and offensive coordinator Ron Lee. Craig Ver Steeg, who was quarterbacks coach at pass-happy Illinois, replaces Lee and will bring with him a quick-strike, two-back version of the West Coast offense.

McBride, who one Salt Lake City columnist reported last week must win at least seven games this year to keep his $310,000 per year job, felt it was time to move away from his successful power running attack that produced NFL running back stars Jamal Anderson, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Mike Anderson.

"It was time to get some new ideas, some new thoughts, because of the kind of season we had," McBride said. "You're always looking for ways to improve, to get some new energy and ideas."

But do the Utes have the personnel to make it work right away?

Sophomore Lance Rice is the only quarterback on the roster with any college experience, going 2-1 at the end of the 2000 campaign including leading the Utes to a 38-16 win over Jason Thomas-less UNLV. Unproven sophomore lefty Ryan Breska, a transfer from Purdue, and redshirt freshman Brett Elliott, who may have the most upside, are waiting in the wings if Rice should falter.

The wide receiver unit is also pretty thin and inexperienced with the graduation of all-MWC pick Steve Smith. Senior Cliff Russell and junior walk-on Josh Lyman are the only players with any real Division I experience. And top freshman recruit Lynzell Jackson must sit out after failing to meet minimum NCAA freshman eligibility requirments.

McBride's trademark has been producing big, strong offensive lines and this year's group should be no exception thanks to the all-league tackles Doug Kaufusi and Jordan Gross. And they have a top-notch running back to block for in 6-1, 229-pound senior Adam Tate, who was the Mountain West's third leading rusher a year ago with 660 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns despite not cracking the lineup until the fourth game of the season.

Utah's defense led the conference and was rated 10th in the nation a year ago, allowing just 288.3 yards and 18.8 points per game. But only four starters return and the Utes lose two first team all-MWC performers in corner Andre Dyson, a second round pick of the Tennessee Titans, and hard-hitting linebacker Kautai Olevao.

The secondary, which not only loses the talented Dyson but also two other top corners and three rotating starters at safety, could be particularly vulnerable although McBride is high on former Cimarron star Arnold Parker at strong safety.

"I expect Arnold Parker to be the best safety in the league," McBride said.

Utah's special teams took a big hit with the graduations of Smith and Dyson, perhaps the two best return men in the conference. However, Oklahoma transfer Brian Lewis is expected to give the punting and placekicking departments a big boost.

And with a brutal road schedule that includes games at Oregon, Indiana, Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV and in-state rival BYU, McBride and company can use any boost they can get going into what figures to be a very pivotal year for them.

Despite the fact McBride has won 75 games in 11 seasons in Salt Lake City, the Utes, who were picked to win the MWC a year ago, faltered badly. And some longtime Ute followers believe a change is needed, especially if Utah doesn't have a winning season this year.

Season-ticket sales plummeted 15 percent after last season. This despite the fact Utah plays in one of the country's top new stadiums, $50 million Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"With the stadium, our potential upside is a lot bigger than it used to be," athletic director Chris Hill told the Salt Lake Tribune recently. "We just haven't gotten there yet. ... Any time you have a drop in revenues, it's a concern. We have to pay for that stadium, so we need to build on our base, not have it diminished."

Another subpar season and Hill likely will be looking for another head coach to build up those revenues.

This is the sixth in a series of stories previewing the 2001 MWC football teams. Tuesday: Wyoming.

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