February 11, 2010

Spring Preview: Defense

Utah has some big holes to fill on the defensive side of the football, losing seven starters from the 2009 unit. The good news for the Utes is that a great defense starts with the defensive line, where the Utes appear to be loaded. The ability for a defensive line to plug up gaps or create pressure on the quarterback makes the jobs of the rest of the defense much easier. Utah also returns several players who saw a great deal of playing time in 2009 which will make the transition from backup to starter much easier. Despite the loss of seven starters, the Utes have nine defenders that have started at least three games.

When the Utes open spring camp in March, they will have many questions to answer on the defensive side of the ball. Positions to watch are linebacker, safety, and defensive tackle.

Utah's defense could have been better in 2009, giving up 20 points per game. The biggest area the Utes need to improve is the run defense, as the Utes gave up 138 yards per game on the ground and 3.7 yards per carry. Key to improving those numbers will be the play of the defensive line, which struggled at times in 2009 and where we will start our spring preview.

Defensive End
Players LostReturning StartersTop ReturnersThe Rest
Koa MisiDerrick ShelbyChristian CoxEric Dago
Junior Tui'oneTrevor Reilly
Joe Kruger
Sione Tupouata

Utah faces a big challenge in replacing the productivity of Koa Misi. Misi led all defensive linemen in tackles and tackles for loss to go along with his five sacks. Utah's defensive line had some issues at times in 2009, though line coach John Pease is willing to take some of the blame, as he replaced longtime line coach Gary Andersen. It took some time for the returning players to adjust to Pease's style, teaching method and terminology and Pease expects the entire unit to perform better now that they have all had time to adjust to each other. "It's like chess," Pease said about the change in coaches. "I know how to move all the chess pieces, but I can't play chess. I'm a terrible chess player, but I can move the pieces. So if you say, 'do you play chess?' I'll say 'yeah…,' no I don't. Last year our guys, did they play football? Yes, they played football but this year I think they are going to know the chess board, they're going to know what is happening around them and see and feel all those intricate details that will let them play better."

Derrick Shelby returns as a starter, but will miss spring ball while rehabbing a knee injury. Christian Cox led the Utes with five and a half sacks in 2009 and will get first crack at earning the open starting job end. Junior Tui'one impressed the coaches as the season went on, and will try and use a strong showing during bowl prep to position himself for increased playing time in 2010.

Trevor Reilly had a great season on the scout team in 2009, and has added size and strength during the off-season. Reilly was causing havoc and will get plenty of reps in the spring with Shelby being out. Eric Dago is still on the light and skinny side for defensive end, but he is a natural pass rusher. Freshmen Joe Kruger and Sione Tupouata will join the team in the fall and could push for immediate playing time.

Outlook: Should Shelby come back at full strength, Utah should be fine at defensive end. Between Shelby, Cox, and Tui'one, Utah will have three solid defensive ends to rotate between the two positions. Reilly has a great shot at playing earning time in the spring should he build on his scout team and bowl prep performance.

Defensive Tackle
Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest2010 Mission
Kenape EliapoSealver SiligaLei TalamaivaoLatu HeimuliSiosaia "LT" Tuipulotu
Dave KrugerNeli A'asaJoape PelaSteve Tui'kolovatu
James Aiono
Star Lotulelei
Tame Fangupo
Sione Tuponiua

Kenape Eliapo is gone, but Utah returns a great deal of depth at defensive tackle. The Utes have an interesting combination of players with size, strength, and speed, giving them the ability to mix-and-match and move players around. When Eliapo and fellow starter Lei Talamaivao went down with injuries, Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger stepped in and did not give up the starting spots. Siliga has tremendous strength and is a terrific run stopper who can get a pass rush at times. Kruger is smaller, quicker, and really came on strong in 2009 with his ability to quickly disrupt plays. Talamaivao is a lot like Kruger and can be very disruptive from the tackle spot.

Joape Pela was a late addition to the 2009 recruiting class and spent the season redshirting. A recent bout with pneumonia has slowed Pela down and could keep him from starting spring at full strength. Pela is a talent and can play either tackle spot. Latu Heimuli came in as a highly touted freshman and was in line for major playing time in 2009 before injuring his foot. The injury has set Heimuli back in his technique and progression, but he will be healthy for spring. Neli A'asa is back on the defensive line and could work his way into the rotation. A'asa has been slowed by knee problems but will enter spring healthy. James Aiono will participate in spring practices and has the talent to step in and play immediately. Star Lotulelei will join the team in the fall with three years to play three.

Outlook: Utah is stacked at tackle, at least on paper. There are five or six players that will participate in spring practices that could start for the Utes. Kruger, Talamaivao, and Aiono will also get some reps at end, which will help get guys like Pela, Heimuli, and A'asa the reps they need to get up to speed.

Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest2010 Mission
Stevenson SylvesterNai Fotu Thor SalanoaLT Filiaga
Mike WrightJ.J. WilliamsV.J. FehokoOfa Latu
Kepa GaisonChad ManisJacoby Hale
Jamel KingJake Bentrude
Matt MartinezTyson Buck
Chaz Walker
Boo Andersen

Utah lost all three starters from 2009 to graduation, and will draw the attention of most observers in spring practices. Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kalani Sitake actually feels better this spring than he did a year ago. "I feel better about the position now than I did even going into last year," Sitake said. "The main reason is because I feel really good about the depth, the competition, and the way the guys have progressed." Sitake has reason to feel better, as last spring the Utes only returned three linebackers that had seen significant playing time. This year the Utes return seven players that saw action in 2009, including a pair of players that have started games at linebacker in the past.

Nai Fotu moves to middle linebacker after spending time at defensive end. Fotu began his career as a strongside linebacker and played extremely well there as a sophomore in 2008 before injuring his knee and moving to end. Fotu's speed and aggressive, down-hill style fits what Sitake wants out of his middle linebacker. J.J. Williams started as a freshman in 2006 and kept Stevenson Sylvester off the field. Williams spent last year shaking off some mission rust and ended 2009 playing at a high level. Williams is penciled in as the starting rover linebacker. Former quarterback Chad Manis will start the spring as the strongside linebacker. According to Sitake, all Manis did was make plays in 2009 when he was in. Manis' ability to read the offense will aid him a great deal. Jamel King might be the fastest linebacker on the roster, and will spend spring backing up both the inside positions (rover and middle linebacker). Matt Martinez is a warrior, a big, strong kid who runs well. Martinez has had injury problems in the past but has the ability to make plays when he is on the field. Chaz Walker is a valuable reserve who can play any of the three positions and is probably the most underrated linebacker on the roster. Boo Andersen is a prototypical inside linebacker who will get the chance to earn a lot of playing time in the spring. Four-star signee VJ Fehoko and Jacoby Hale arrive in the fall. Hale will start out as a rover while Fehoko can play any of the three spots. Ofa Latu also signed with the Utes but will go on an LDS mission before enrolling.

Outlook: Though the pre-season outlooks will show that the Utes will not return any starters, the staff feels that the Utes have two returning starters with Fotu and Williams. Competition for playing time will be fierce, but with every returning linebacker having the ability to play two spots, and several that can play all three, Utah's staff has the ability to mix-and-match their personnel to fit the situation more than ever. There will be some growing pains with the unit to start, though a deep and talented defensive line will aid the linebackers more than anything else.

Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest
R.J. StanfordBrandon BurtonLamar ChapmanConroy Black
Justin JonesRyan LacyWykie Freeman
Reggie ToppsJoseph Smith
Kamaron YancyMike Walker
Quade Chappuis
Nick Liefting
Ben Soliven
Bridger Walzer
Travis Walzer

The biggest change at cornerback in 2010 is not with the players, but with the coach. J.D. Williams left Utah to take accept a promotion with UNLV. Rather than go outside the program, Kyle Whittingham moved Jay Hill back to coach the corners. Hill has spent the past two seasons coaching the tight ends. Hill was a standout corner for Utah back in the late 1990's and has had success at coaching the corners beginning as a graduate assistant in 2003. "I'm excited, it's something I've played and something I've coached here already, I'm excited to move back to defense," Hill said. "I've got my feet underneath me now coaching the special teams and I feel good about moving back to the defense." Utah lost two players from the 2009 squad; starting left corner R.J. Stanford and reserve Justin Jones.

Brandon Burton returns at right corner after having a terrific debut season. Burton struggled a bit at the beginning of the season but played All-Conference caliber football the last half of the year. Lamar Chapman excelled at nickel and will get first crack at left corner, though he might be best suited to stay at nickel back, as the Utes play nickel roughly 50% of the time with the wide-open offenses in the conference. Conroy Black redshirted a year ago and will be in the mix with his size, length and speed. Black might be the fastest player Utah has ever had with his 10.3 100-meter speed. Reggie Topps moved between safety and corner in 2009 but has found a home at corner. Topps also has great speed and will be in the mix for playing time. Kamaron Yancy did not play much a year ago but impressed in practices. Yancy is a smart, physical player. Ryan Lacy is another speedster in the secondary who played some in 2009. Freshmen Wykie Freeman, Joseph Smith, and Michael Walker will all join the team in the fall.

Outlook:Burton is a lock who became one of the better corners in the MWC. Overall, the staff would like to see a bit more toughness out of the corners and the ability to overcome adversity. Utah needs to get at least three corners game ready, but there is plenty of talent on the roster. Inexperience will be a big issue, especially with what Utah demands out of their corners. It is not a tough position to learn, but the physical and mental demands of being left out in man coverage is very difficult to adjust to. Playing nickel is considerably different than playing outside, so it might be best to leave Chapman inside. The battle for the left corner spot between Chapman, Black, Topps, and Yancy might be the most exciting battle in spring camp.

Players LostReturning StartersTop Returners The Rest2010 Mission
Robert JohnsonJustin Taplin-RossChris WashingtonChase Maires
Joe DaleVictor SpikesDamian Payne
Greg BirdMike Honeycutt
Bryce BennionChris Sciarretta
Lolo Tenifa
Tyler Whittingham

Utah lost two All-Conference safeties in Joe Dale and Robert Johnson and there is not a great deal of experience coming back. Johnson's range and ball skills will be tough to replace, as will Dale's experience and ability to play the run. Inexperience will be the biggest challenge for Utah's safeties and there will be several players vying the starting jobs. "We've got some very good possibilities but not a lot of playing time from any of those guys," safety coach Morgan Scalley said. "We'll find somebody, we always have and we will."

The strong safety spot appears to be locked up by Justin Taplin-Ross. Taplin-Ross played very well in 2009 when asked to step when Dale was injured. Taplin-Ross has great size, speed, and range, but needs to be a bit more physical in the box and develop some better ball skills. Taplin-Ross has the ability to play both free and strong, which gives Scalley some leeway with the second starter. Taplin-Ross did play all of last year with a badly dislocated finger that might have impacted his ability to catch the interceptions he dropped. Victor Spikes is the favorite to start at free safety in the spring. Spikes has a great deal of talent but is still raw in technique. Chris Washington[db] injured his shoulder in fall camp and spent all season rehabbing, and needs spring practices as much as anyone to get up to speed. Washington has good ball skills but needs to learn the system. [db]Greg Bird played some in 2009 and can play either spot. Bird is a smart, physical player who needs to use his ability to make plays. Early-enrollee Damian Payne will begin his career at safety, and being here in the spring will allow Payne to immediately get in the mix for playing time. Mike Honeycutt returns from his mission and could play either corner or safety, and Black could move from corner to safety if needed.

Outlook:Simply put, whoever comes out and shows Scalley that he knows the most will end up starting alongside Taplin-Ross. If that player is better suited to playing in the box, Taplin-Ross will play free safety. If that player shows the ability to be a free safety, Taplin-Ross will play strong safety. Spikes and Washington are the early favorites, but don't overlook Payne.

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