March 2, 2010

Spring Guide to the Safety Battle

Utah must find replacements for both starting safeties as both Joe Dale and Robert Johnson are graduating. The competition for the starting jobs begins well before the players step foot on the practice field, according to safeties coach Morgan Scalley. "I want to see desire to learn the defense, desire to compete in everything they're doing on the field and off the field," Scalley said. "A guy that wants to be the best at all times, comes in and watches film on their own, everything they do makes an impression be it showing up late to class or a mentor meeting, that stuff means something to me, shows me what kind of person they are."

Scalley is excited to work with an inexperienced group and loves the thought of seeing new stars emerge in the defensive backfield. "No question. We'll see how good of a coach I am this year," Scalley said. "I love the safeties I've got. They have had a good mindset going into the off-season and I'm excited to watch them compete." With that in mind, here are the participants to watch once practices start.

Senior Justin Taplin-Ross played in all 13 a year ago and started for an injured Dale against Wyoming, recording six tackles. Overall, Taplin-Ross played terrific when called upon, recording 29 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, breaking up three passes and recovering a fumble. Now Taplin-Ross needs to show he can be a playmaker as a starter at safety. What makes Taplin-Ross intriguing is that he can play well at either free or strong safety. "Taplin-Ross is a guy that has incredible range and can play both the free and the strong," Scalley said. "That's what you like in your safeties, guys that have the versatility to play both positions and he has that." Though Taplin-Ross is expected to earn a starting job, how and where the other safeties play well will be a factor in determining which spot.

Taplin-Ross will start out at strong safety leaving the rest to initially compete at free. "The free safety spot is not one that is difficult to learn but you have to have a good free safety in our defense; it helps the corners out and gives them more confidence playing man-to-man," Scalley said. "We'll find somebody, we always have and we will."

Sophomore Victor Spikes saw some playing time in 2009 as a true freshman despite missing his senior season of high school due to transfer rules. Spikes played in eight games, mainly on special teams, and recorded two tackles. Spikes has the physical tools to play and projects more as an in-the-box safety, but he can play either spot as well. Spikes is still raw, and has some things to work on. "Spikes needs to work on quickness; he's got great speed and he'll hit you, it's a controlled quickness - being able to break down and shuffle side to side - that he needs to work on, and learning the defense," Scalley said.

Junior Greg Bird saw time in three games as a backup and recorded two tackles. Bird knows the defense better than the underclassmen he is competing against, giving him a bit of an edge. It is now time for Bird to step out on the field and show what he can do when in the right place at the right time. The one-time linebacker might look more like a strong safety, but he can play free as well. "He's got good athletic ability and the 'want-to' factor is there, he just has to make plays," Scalley said. "You put a guy out there and they know their assignment and they're the first one to tell you what they are supposed to do, but if they can't make plays it doesn't do us much good. Greg has the ability but he has to go out there and do it."

Redshirt freshman Chris Washington got off to strong start last fall an was on track to see playing time before injuring his shoulder and missing the season. Now healthy, Washington has ground to make up on the competition. Washington is more of a free safety with his skill-set and will get a long look at that spot. "He has range, he has good ball skills, but he needs to work on coming down hill," Scalley said. "He's a guy that needs to have an entire off-season to get where he needs to be."

True freshman Damian Payne graduated early and will participate in spring ball, giving the great athlete a chance to compete for a starting job. Payne is more of a free safety right now but has the skill-set to eventually grow into a safety that can play both spots. Payne needs to learn the defense as quickly he can if he does not want to get left behind. "He's got tremendous athletic ability but the transition from high school to college is big," Scalley said. "He's coming in with a great mentality; he's watching film, he's doing everything he can to compete with these guys."

A wildcard in the safety battle might be playing another position. Junior corner Conroy Black will take part in his first spring practices as a Ute at corner, but he could end up moving to safety at some point. Black is one of the more compelling stories in the spring, as the versatile athlete would be a great asset at either corner or safety with his unique blend of size and speed, though he does have a few things to work on besides just learning the defense. "The guy has so much speed and quickness," Scalley said. "He's a long levered guy who has range, he reminds you a bit of Robert, just not the ball skills. He may get there but Robert had that at the beginning. Conroy has tremendous athletic ability and speed, there is no substitute for speed."

Though coach Scalley is confident that the Utes will find a solid pair of safeties, the third year coach has no idea who will emerge from the group and start in the fall. "I can't answer that, I honestly can't - the guy that knows the most," Scalley said. "Skill level, they're pretty much the same; it is going to be the guy that I feel most comfortable with, the guy I trust back there. I'm not giving that to anyone, they have to earn it.?

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