2012 Utah Preview – Defense
Utah DT Star Lotulelei
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Utah Ute Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: With seven starters returning, and an all-star contender at each level, might this be Kyle Whittingham's best defense at Utah? Whittingham and his staff have seemingly always done a great job of transforming marginal defensive recruits and junior-college transfers into bona fide stoppers. Sure, the 2012 edition has concerns, like at defensive end and at linebacker, but nothing so egregious that it can't be overcome by the holdovers. The Utes will again be tough to run on, thanks in large part to NT Star Lotulelei, who just might be the first defensive player taken in next April's NFL Draft. Oh, and good luck throwing on an athletic, ball-hawking secondary with a slew of All-Pac-12 candidates, such as SS Brian Blechen, FS Eric Rowe and CB Ryan Lacy. Utah is at it again. The team doesn't have a mess of household names, but a degree of anonymity won't keep it from excelling on this side of the ball - again.
Star of the defense: Senior NT Star Lotulelei
Tackles: Brian Blechen, 78
Sacks: Trevor Reilly, 5
Interceptions: Brian Blechen, Mo Lee, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB V.J. Fehoko
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore FS Eric Rowe
Best pro prospect: Lotulelei
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Lotulelei, 2) Junior SS Brian Blechen, 3) Junior LB Trevor Reilly
Strength of the defense: Run defense, the secondary, limiting big plays, takeaways, red zone stops
Weakness of the defense: Sure-things in the pass rush, rebuilt linebacker corps
Utah isn't Pac-12-caliber at a ton of positions. Defensive line has the potential to be one of them. The tone-setter will once again be 6-4, 325-pound NT Star Lotulelei, the All-Pac-12 first-teamer with an All-American ceiling. The former Snow College star was also the winner of the Morris Trophy, given to the league's best D-lineman, despite being doubled for much of the year. The senior would be in the NFL right now had he left school early, but instead will be one of the first players chosen in the 2013 draft. Lotulelei's importance up front transcends numbers, 44 tackles, nine stops for loss and 1.5 sacks. He's a powerful anchor in run defense who's nearly impossible to move off his base.
The Utes have a good one next to Lotulelei in 6-5, 295-pound senior Dave Kruger, who will benefit from all of the attention his linemate receives. The three-time letterwinner has bounced between tackle and end, showing the versatility to play both positions. While a tad undersized to dominate on the inside, he's the kind of steady, hard-working veteran who'll get the most out of his skill set. In 10 starts a year ago, he had 22 tackles, 1.5 stops for loss and one sack. Pushing Kruger for playing time will be 6-2, 340-pound junior Junior Salt, a heralded JUCO recruit from Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) Junior College. An original commit to Florida, he has the size and strength to contribute on either side of the ball.
Kruger's younger brother, junior Joe Kruger, is hoping to pick up some of the slack left behind by the graduation of Derrick Shelby. The 6-7, 275-pounder made considerable strides a year ago, chipping in 35 tackles, five stops for loss and three sacks, and could be on the verge of a breakout season. The Utes are in the market for quality edge rushers, and No. 99 has the long arms, good motor and improving technique to handle the role.
Taking the lead opposite Kruger, at left end, is 6-3, 240-pound sophomore Nate Fakahafua, the weakside pass rusher in the Utes' alignment. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman, but mostly in obvious passing situations. Now that he's used the offseason to bulk up, however, the staff believes he can be a three-down player. No one on this unit can match his athleticism or explosiveness off the snap.
With snaps in the backfield dwindling, the coaches have decided to shift 6-2, 250-pound junior Thretton Palamo from running back to defensive end. Better known for his work as a rugby player, he's the youngest ever participant in the sport's World Cup. An explosive blend of quick feet and agility, he's raw, but gives the staff an interesting mix of skills with which to work.
Watch Out For … Fakahafua's development. He looks like the kind of pass rusher the Utes need on the outside, exploding off the snap and into the opposing backfield. The hope around the defensive meeting rooms is that he hasn't lost a step after bulking up a little in the offseason. With the other three starters garnering so much attention, the sophomore is capable of winning plenty of one-on-one matchups.
Strength: Run defense. After ranking 20th nationally versus the run, Utah doesn't see any drop-off on the horizon. With Lotulelei and Kruger on the inside, the Utes are going to create a lot of congestion, forcing opposing backs to navigate outside the tackles. If the safeties and rebuilt linebackers can fill lanes quickly, this D might not allow more than three yards a carry.
Weakness: The ends. There's ample potential with Kruger and Fakahafua, but no sure-fire answers off the edge. Shelby was an all-star performer, and Trevor Reilly has moved back a level. Both players produced five sacks last season, which someone on the two-deep will need to replace in order to take a little pressure off the defensive backs.
Outlook: The Utes are going to feature a grown-up D-line that consistently creates a push and moves the pocket. Lotulelei is essentially an NFL-ready tackle who'll have his way with opposing blockers on most Saturdays. The key for Utah will be the senior's supporting cast to make the most of their one-on-one situations. No. 92 will get maximum attention once again, so it'll be up to Fakahafua and the Krugers to make the opposition pay for its blocking choices.
Unit Rating: 8.5
The defense must move forward without two really productive players, last year's leading tacklers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez. Building depth and fleshing out the pecking order at linebacker will be summer priorities. The new Stud on the second level, both literally and figuratively, will be junior Trevor Reilly, a hybrid between an outside linebacker and a defensive end. At 6-5 and 240 pounds, he has the long arms to swim past blockers, and the extended gait to cover ground very quickly. The former walk-on is one of the big-play defenders for the program, racking up 47 tackles, nine stops for loss, five sacks and a team-high four fumbles as a seven-game starter in 2011.
The competition at Rover, the other outside spot, will come down to 6-0, 225-pound sophomore Jacoby Hale and 6-0, 240-pound redshirt freshman LT Filiaga. Hale has a slight edge in experience after making seven tackles in seven games last season. Filiaga was a top prospect in 2009 before going on his two-year LDS mission. While experience won't come until this fall, the staff loves the pursuit and potential of both young players.
Finally, in the middle, it looks as if 5-11, 223-pound sophomore V.J. Fehoko is going to earn the starting nod. He lettered in 2011, but had just four tackles in eight appearances. While he's not going to wow with his speed, he plays stronger than his size and has outstanding fundamentals for such a young player, taking the right angles in run defense. He's cut from the same cloth as Martinez and Walker, exceeding expectations with a great work ethic.
Watch Out For … Reilly to (still) lead the team in sacks. Yeah, he'll spend more time off the line than on it, but his station on the field won't prevent him from wreaking havoc on the pocket. He'll be used liberally on blitzes, timing his attack to catch offensive lines napping. The junior is a natural rusher, with the bend to tee off on quarterbacks.
Strength: Range. The linebackers certainly aren't as seasoned as last year's group, but they sure are faster. The staff plans to unleash a speedy ensemble of athletes from the second level, all of whom move laterally extremely well. Once the instincts catch up with the raw ability, it'll be tough to get to the edge on this D.
Weakness: Experience. There's Reilly … and a slew of wide-eyed underclassmen. The two-deep is flush with sophomores and redshirt freshmen, none of whom have played extensively at this level. At least in the early going, their heads could be swimming until the speed of the game slows down a little.
Outlook: Utah has historically done a fantastic job of developing productive linebackers out of marginal raw materials. Martinez, Walker and Reilly provide recent proof that a scholarship isn't even required to make it as a second-level defender in Salt Lake City. This latest edition is going to be just fine, but it might take until late 2012 or 2013 before hitting its stride.
Unit Rating: 6.5
With three starters back from 2011, Utah has a quiet confidence about its secondary entering the summer. After playing linebacker in the early stages of last seasons, junior Brian Blechen settled back in at strong safety, where he'll spend 2012 as well. He's the Utes most versatile defensive playmaker, an instinctive, do-it-all defensive back. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, he has the size to impact the run defense, making 78 tackles, eight stops for loss, two sacks and three forced fumbles. However, he's also an underrated pass defender, picking off three balls as a sophomore to bring his two-year total to seven.
Behind Blechen is a solid and underrated backup, 5-11, 198-pound Quade Chappuis. The athletic junior started last year's Washington game, and finished the season with 20 tackles, an interception and his second letter.
At free safety, sophomore Eric Rowe looks as if he's going to be a fixture in the lineup for the next three seasons. He got off to a rather auspicious debut as a Ute, starting nine games as a rookie and getting progressively better throughout the season. The 6-1, 200-pounder finished fourth with 69 tackles, adding nine pass breakups. He's a special all-around athlete who could spend the rest of his time in Salt Lake City laying the groundwork for a future in the NFL.
The defensive backfield's biggest objective this summer will be to find a replacement for CB Conroy Black. Fortunately, three different players started games opposite Black in 2011. Senior Ryan Lacy actually started every game last fall, alternating between cornerback and nickel. He has great speed, improving cover skills and just enough of an attitude to knock a receiver's block off. In the most extensive action of his career, he made 51 stops, and led the team with 10 pass breakups.
Lacy split some time with 6-1, 195-pound senior Mo Lee who started a couple of games in the middle of the season. The converted wide receiver from Palomar (Calif.) Community College finished his first year of action with 29 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups. If Lee can improve his fundamentals in coverage, he possesses the size, speed and agility to attract the attention of pro scouts in his final year with the Utes.
Like Chappuis at safety, the Utes have a luxury at cornerback, hard-hitting veteran Keith McGill. The heralded former transfer from Cerritos (Calif.) College and JUCO All-American started the Week 2 game versus USC, but was limited by injury to five games. The 6-3, 205-pounder is still in the process of adjusting from safety to corner, where he's more likely to see the field.
Watch Out For … the outcome of the suspension of CB Reggie Topps. The senior has earned three letters, and was slated to be the nickel back before getting in hot water in early April. The Utes enjoy nice depth in the defensive backfield, but will become even deeper and more experienced if No. 28 gets off probation.
Strength: Defending the pass. Forget the fact that Utah gave up a lot of yards in 2011. The Utes led the Pac-12 in lowest completion percentage, lowest yards per attempt and interceptions, while finishing second in touchdowns yielded. With so many veterans back for another year, a repeat performance cannot be ruled out, especially since the D has a better scouting report on its opponents than it did a year ago.
Weakness: Nickel. The absence and uncertainty surrounding Topps has left the team searching for answers when it adds a fifth defensive back on the field. For now, the Utes plan to lean on speedy junior Mike Honeycutt and Hawaii Lewis Walker, who sat out last season.
Outlook: Only three teams held USC's Matt Barkley to less than two touchdown passes in 2011, and the Utes were one of them. Utah has a vastly underrated secondary, one that's rich in speed, experience and cover skills. There's talent, depth and big-play ability, which should have this team near the top of the Pac-12 defensive charts for a second straight fall.
Unit Rating: 8
Utah, which always takes special teams extra serious, is thrilled to be bringing back both of last year's specialists. Senior PK Coleman Petersen was a revelation in his first year of action, converting 18-of-25 field goal attempts to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12. He had originally walked on to the team in 2006, but left for a church mission shortly thereafter, and didn't appear in his first game until last season.
Senior Sean Sellwood has been a fixture as the Utes' punter since his freshman year. The native of South Africa is coming off his best season in Salt Lake City, ranking eight nationally and tops in the Pac-12 at just over 45 yards an attempt. Powerful and improving, he's also the team's holder on field goals and extra points.
Backing up both players is junior Nick Marsh, who handles kickoffs, and averaged more than 40 yards on 20 punts in 2011.
The return game will be handled by junior Griff McNabb on punt, and a combination of senior DeVonte Christopher and senior Reggie Dunn on kickoffs.
Watch Out For … Petersen to contend for the Lou Groza Award. The senior exceeded all expectations in 2011, particularly since it had been so long since he'd competed in live games. With that first year now behind him, he has the mechanics and the leg strength to break through on a national level.
Strength: The specialists. Petersen is an All-Pac-12-caliber placekicker. Sellwood has one of the league's strongest legs among punters. And Marsh is a versatile asset who averaged a robust 65.7 yards on kickoffs in 2011. With this trio in charge, it's no wonder that Utah ranked fifth nationally at covering kicks and 13th on punt return yardage D.
Weakness: Punt returns. McNabb isn't going to hurt a special teams unit with fumbles or poor decisions, but he's not going to ignite a fire under it either. He averaged just 7.5 yards an attempt in 2011, with a long return of only 31 yards.
Outlook: Kyle Whittingham's staff always places heavy emphasis on the special teams. And it continues to show. After a brief rebuilding period, by their lofty standards, the Utes are equipped to rank among the nation's dozen or so most complete units. The specialists are rock solid, and the coverage teams give away very little ground.
Unit Rating: 8
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