2011 Utah Preview – Defense
Utah LB Brian Bleachen
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Utah Ute Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The front seven will once again be terrific, but will it be imposing enough to offset a secondary that's replacing all four starters? As if moving to the quarterback-rich Pac-12 isn't daunting enough, the Utes will do so with two new corners and two untested safeties. The program loves the potential of the likes of CB Conroy Black and FS Keith McGill, but there'll be trepidation until the defensive backfield proves it can contain some of the league's better receivers. Up front, Utah will be Pac-12-ready. The D-line rotation will be deep and impressive, led by DE Dave Kruger and NT Star Lotulelei, an emerging force on the inside. While not household names, the linebackers simply know how to make plays. Senior Chaz Walker led the squad with 113 stops, and sophomore Brian Blechen is moving to stud after excelling at safety as a rookie. Perennially underrated, the Ute defense will again be stingy as long as the secondary is able to gel on the fly.
Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Brian Blechen
Tackles: Chaz Walker, 113
Sacks: Chaz Walker, Derrick Shelby, Trevor Reilly, 2
Interceptions: Brian Blechen, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Conroy Black
Unsung star on the rise: Junior NT Star Lotulelei
Best pro prospect: Lotulelei
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Blechen, 2) Senior LB Chaz Walker, 3) Junior DE Dave Kruger
Strength of the defense: The D-line, the linebackers, takeaways, run defense, creating pressure, red zone defense
Weakness of the defense: Rebuilt secondary, pass defense
State of the Unit: Much like the offensive line, the D-line needs to replace two of last season's best performers. DE Christian Cox graduated and DT Sealver Siliga opted to forego his final year of eligibility, leaving sizable holes at both positions. That said, the Utes feel as if they've developed the unit well enough over the years to not skip a beat. Nine of last season's letterwinners and four linemen with starting experience return, giving the staff plenty of options and a healthy atmosphere of competition.
The Utes are convinced they've got a budding run-stuffer in junior NT Star Lotulelei . After joining the program in August, the Snow College transfer started three games and gradually emerged as one of the program's better interior linemen. The 6-4, 320-pounder has trimmed down during the offseason, affording him even more quickness to go along with his enormous strength. After debuting with 21 tackles and 2.5 stops for loss, he's poised to become one of the Pac-12's breakout linemen of 2011.
Senior James Aiono is the favorite to join Lotulelei on the inside. Another Ute import from Snow College, the 6-4, 305-pounder had 10 stops as a reserve last fall, and appears to have found a home after also playing some end.
Starting ends have not been named, portending intense competition in August. The left side pits 6-5, 283-pound senior Tevita Finau versus 6-5, 285-pound junior Dave Kruger . After starting the last two seasons at tackle, Kruger is making the move back to his more natural position. At times engulfed by bigger opponents, he only managed 27 tackles and a half-sack in 2010. However, he should get more chances to make plays in the backfield now that he's out on the perimeter. At 25, Finau is the senior member of the squad, bringing maturity and leadership to the first line of defense. This opportunity to play extensively has been a long time coming for a well-traveled JUCO transfer who looked for years as if he'd wind up playing for West Virginia.
Competing for playing time on the right side is 6-3, 262-pound senior Derrick Shelby and 6-7, 270-pound sophomore Joe Kruger . It's taken time, but Shelby has regained the burst and explosiveness he had before a season-ending knee injury in 2009. The starter over last year's final seven games, he chipped in 39 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, two sacks, and three forced fumbles. He's trying to fend off the challenge of Kruger, who's looking to form a brotherly bookend on the outside with older sibling Dave. He's filled out nicely since arriving as a top recruit, and earned a letter as a rookie special teamer.
Watch Out For … the brothers Kruger. Neither lineman has scratched the surface of his potential, though that could change this fall. Dave is ready to blossom now that he's moving to end. Following an outstanding spring, Joe will do no worse than being an integral part of the rotation. Older brother Paul, a member of the Baltimore Ravens, must be proud of the burgeoning Kruger legacy in Salt Lake City.
Strength: Controlling the line of scrimmage. Even without Cox and Siliga, the Utes will once again be extremely tough at the point of attack. The team that finished 11th nationally in run defense and led the Mountain West in sacks retains enough size and experience to continue moving the other guys off the ball.
Weakness: Inside depth. At defensive end, Utah will have a terrific rotation of starter-caliber players. On the inside, however, the line will be thin. Assuming Dave Kruger remains on the outside and future star Latu Heimuli take off on his LDS mission, the Utes will have problems injecting sure-things from the bench.
Outlook: Just because there aren't any household names doesn't mean Utah isn't loaded on the defensive line. The Utes once again boast ample size, power, and overall talent in the trenches. Best of all, none of the ends or tackles have peaked in their potential. Lotulelei, Finau, and the Krugers are liable to begin maxing out at the same time, which would cause a world of problems for opposing Pac-12 offensive lines.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The Utes lose just one starter, Chad Manis, to graduation, but will replace him with another regular from the secondary. In fact, last season's top three tacklers will all be operating from the second level of the defense. Although the collection of Utah linebackers isn't much bigger than the team's safeties, it's designed to fly all over the field and leave an imprint on the run and pass defense.
Middle linebacker is going to be the scene of an intriguing battle this summer. Senior Chaz Walker is the incumbent, but can expect a stiff challenge from fellow senior J.J. Williams . A former walk-on safety, Walker was a revelation in his first year as a starter, making a team-high 113 tackles, seven stops for loss, two sacks, and two picks. The 6-0, 223-pound All-Mountain West Second Team pick is a self-made, fundamentally-sound performer. Williams, however, was the starter in 2010 before a foot injury shut him down for all but two games. If healthy, it'll be difficult to keep him off the field. He made a big splash five years ago, starting seven games as a rookie walk-on, but has been relatively quiet since.
Assuming Williams doesn't slide out to rover, the position will once again be manned by 6-0, 225-pound Matt Martinez. Yet another one-time walk-on blooming late in his career, the senior was second on the team with 91 tackles, adding 5.5 stops for loss. He plays with reckless abandon, fostering a contagious energy that gets picked up by the rest of the D.
The big news at stud linebacker is that sophomore Brian Blechen is taking it over after moving down a level from safety. Recruited as a quarterback, he quickly won a defensive job last summer and never looked back. The 6-2, 225-pound Freshman All-American delivered 67 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, and a team-best four interceptions. Two of those picks sealed victories. He's one of those coveted defenders, with a knack for routinely being in the right place at the right time. Providing insurance for Blechen is sophomore Trevor Reilly, the biggest of the linebackers. The 6-5, 238-pounder made 19 stops, 5.5 stops for loss, and two sacks, but could wind up as a liability in pass coverage.
Watch Out For … Williams. Hey, if the foot is fine, the coaches will have a hard time keeping him on the sidelines. However, he sat out the entire spring and hasn't played much since 2006. If he's able to play to his full potential, he's athletic enough to be the kind of instigator who really shakes up the depth chart in August.
Strength: Motors. Up and down the depth chart, the Utes are littered with self-made types who are going to bring it on every down. The work ethic and will to succeed from the former walk-ons, even though they're now on scholarship. This group is smart and tough, rarely missing tackles when it gets an opponent in the crosshairs.
Weakness: Lack of elite size and speed. There's a lot to like about the Utah linebackers, but they're not exactly an ensemble of thoroughbreds. Built like glorified safeties, they're going to be a step slow and vulnerable through the air versus some of the Pac-12's more athletic teams.
Outlook: The Ute linebackers will be a scrappy bunch that makes a ton of plays this fall. As productive as they were a year ago, they harbor the personnel to be even better in 2011. The import of Blechen and the hopeful return from injury of Williams ensure that Utah will be both deep and talented at the position.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: No unit is saddled with more uncertainty than the secondary, which is virtually starting from scratch. The Utes lose a plethora of quality performers, SS Brian Blechen to the linebacker corps and FS Justin Taplin-Ross, CB Lamar Chapman, and all-star CB Brandon Burton to the lure of the NFL. Making matters even more unsettling, the 2010 edition failed to even approach its potential, getting torched for 14 touchdown passes over the final five games. There's a worry around Salt Lake City that the situation could get worse before it gets better.
The staff has high expectations for 6-0, 186-pound senior Conroy Black , who's been penciled in at one of the open cornerback spots. The second-year transfer from Fullerton (Calif.) Community College is a dynamic all-around athlete, running a 4.3 and posting a 39-inch vertical leap during offseason testing. Now he needs the measurables to translate into stops on Saturdays. As the first corner off the bench in 2010, he was in on 19 tackles and broke up three passes.
Joining Black at corner will be 5-10, 187-pound Ryan Lacy. Another burner on the last line of defense, he played well enough in the spring to quell some fears. The junior will need to swim in the deep end of the pool after playing sparingly since he arrived in 2008. The team's nickel back and first corner off the bench will be 5-11, 190-pound junior Reggie Topps , a two-time letterwinner. Mostly a special teams participant, he got in on nine tackles a year ago.
Youth is currently trumping experience at strong safety, with sophomore Michael Walker leading senior Greg Bird at the conclusion of spring. Walker is just 5-9 and 191 pounds, but plays bigger than his size, and possesses the speed of a cornerback. He played in a dozen games on special teams, making eight stops. At 6-2 and 214 pounds, Bird is a much bigger and more seasoned option. He missed the spring with a shoulder injury, but is expected to resume his bid for a job. Like having another linebacker on the field, he had 19 tackles and started a pair of games in 2010.
Free safety is going to be an intriguing competition between a pair of newcomers, junior Keith McGill and true freshman Eric Rowe . McGill comes to Salt Lake City by way of Cerritos (Calif.) College, where he was a JUCO All-American. Operating with a rare combination of size and speed, the 6-3, 200-pounder has the skill set to be a breakout star in his Pac-12 debut. The staff really likes the upside potential of Rowe, a long and exciting athlete. While he could struggle to bump McGill, breaking into the rotation and earning a letter doesn't figure to be much of a problem.
Watch Out For … McGill to be an immediate playmaker in his Ute debut. On physical ability alone, he's going to excel shortly after arriving on campus. His rare blend of strength, length, and quickness is going to help make him an asset as a defender of the run and the pass.
Strength: Speed. While the defensive backs remain vulnerable in coverage, it won't be because of a lack of quality wheels. The projected starting corners, Black and Lacy, can fly and the safeties can motor as well. There's ample catch-up speed in the secondary to limit the number of big plays through the air.
Weakness: Pass coverage. Playing in a league with fewer quality passers, the Utes' 73rd-ranked pass defense yielded more than 61% of opponents' passes to be completed. With four new starters set to be anointed in the summer, it's hard to imagine the situation improving from a year ago.
Outlook: The secondary is a tender area as the season approaches, but it's not as if the Utes lack the potential or personnel to surprise a few people in the fall. Black and Lacy are up-and-coming cornerbacks, and McGill is itching for a chance to build a following from free safety. If they can develop together, the pass defense has a chance to improve upon last season's disappointing results for the pass defense.
Unit Rating: 6.5
State of the Unit: The Utes hope to continue their success with placekickers now that First team All-Mountain West choice Joe Phillips has graduated. It looks as if his successor will be junior Coleman Petersen , who moved ahead of sophomore Nick Marsh in the spring. Marsh was last year's kickoff specialist, showing off a strong leg. However, Petersen was more consistent, and at 6-2 and 192 pounds has an impressive leg whip.
Back for a third year at punter is junior Sean Sellwood , the South Africa native. The 2009 Freshman All-American's average dipped to 41 yards per punt and had three blocked, but improved on his directionals and hang time.
While the Utes lose the nation's most prolific punt returner, Shaky Smithson, they're not without playmakers on special teams. Replacing Smithson will either be sophomore Griff McNabb or redshirt freshman Dres Anderson . On kickoffs, juniors Reggie Dunn and Ryan Lacy will both get touches this fall. Lacy will have his hands full unseating the speedy Dunn, who averaged almost 30 yards a return in 2010, taking one back 100 yards versus Iowa State.
Watch Out For … how well Petersen adapts to the pressure. Utah is accustomed to consistency and honors in this area. However, in the five years since walking on to the squad, he's yet to attempt a kick. He was gone on a church mission, but has yet to have an impact since returning to the program.
Strength: The return game. Of course, you don't get better by losing an incendiary weapon, such as Smithson. However, Dunn and his special teams mates will also be dangerous with the ball in their hands. The junior cannot be caught from behind once he hits a seam in the other team's coverage.
Weakness: Uncertainty in the kicking game. Quietly, the program would have liked the more experienced Marsh to nab this opening at placekicker. That might not happen. Now, Petersen is earning his current spot atop the depth chart, but getting it done in April is a lot different than delivering in September.
Outlook: The Utah staff always places heavy emphasis on the special teams. And it shows. This year, though, the Utes could be down a notch as it looks to replace an all-league placekicker and an All-American punt returner. While the return game expects to land on its feet, Petersen is a question mark that could impact the outcome of multiple games in 2011.
Unit Rating: 7
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