2013 Utah Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Utah Ute Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The Utah coaching staff is a resourceful bunch, one that has shown a penchant through the years for maximizing the talent it attracts to the Crossroads of the West. This fall, however, the coaches will need to retool a defensive line that loses three terrific starters, including All-American NT Star Lotulelei. The first step was to move former linebacker Trevor Reilly up a level to defensive end. The next step will be to ask DE Nate Orchard and DT Tenny Palepoi to deliver their best seasons as Utes. The program might be somewhat blue-collar in the back seven, with LB Brian Blechen and S Eric Rowe popping out as exceptions. The cornerbacks, rookie Justin Thomas and oft-injured senior Keith McGill, are inexperienced, which presents a potential soft spot for a D that has to do a far better job of making red-zone stops than it did a year ago.
Star of the defense: Senior DE Trevor Reilly
Tackles: Trevor Reilly, 69
Sacks: Trevor Reilly, 4.5
Interceptions: Multiple, 1
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Keith McGill
Unsung star on the rise: Senior DT Tenny Palepoi
Best pro prospect: Junior FS Eric Rowe
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Reilly, 2) Senior LB Brian Blechen, 3) Rowe
Strength of the defense: Stopping the run, safeties, third-down D, the ends
Weakness of the defense: Cornerbacks, takeaways, red-zone D, linebackers
Senior Trevor Reilly is about to become one of the leaders of the Utah defense, quite an accomplishment for a player who arrived in Salt Lake City without a scholarship. The versatile hybrid, who's expected to play more end than outside linebacker this fall, is at his core a disruptor. He's instinctive and athletic at 6-5 and 245 pounds, timing his pass rush to slip through the blocks and into the backfield. An honorable mention All-Pac-12 choice in 2012, Reilly collected 69 tackles, 6.5 stops behind the line, 4.5 sacks and four passes defended. And over the past two seasons, the long-limbed playmaker has forced a team-high seven fumbles.
Junior DE Nate Orchard, formerly Nate Fakahafua, might feel a little lonely this fall as the only returning starter from a depleted D-line adapting to life after All-American DT Star Lotulelei and the loss of the Kruger brothers, Dave and Joe. Orchard didn't quite make the most of the attention his teammates received in 2012, though did parlay 48 tackles, 9.5 stops for loss, three sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles into All-Pac-12 honorable mention recognition. The mature 6-3, 245-pounder is a terrific athlete, with a mandate to take his game to another level, and hopefully take a few linemates with him.
Nipping at the heels of both Reilly and Orchard on the outside is 6-2, 234-pound sophomore Jason Whittingham, the nephew of the head coach. He's quick and strong, but lacks the size to become an every-down player. In nine games since returning from his LDS mission, he made 35 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and two forced fumbles in 2012.
It'll take more than one player to supplant Lotulelei on the inside. Senior Tenny Palepoi has all but locked up one of the starting tackle jobs, and will bear a lot of the responsibility for plugging holes in run defense. The 6-2, 300-pound former JUCO All-American was playing his best football toward the end of last season, finishing with 21 tackles, three stops for loss and two sacks, and will get an opportunity to parlay his only year as a full-timer into an NFL job.
Next to Palepoi will either be 6-1, 305-pound senior LT Tuipulotu or 6-2, 305-pound junior Sese Ianu. Tuipulotu is a steady, hard-working veteran who is eager to finally get a chance to flourish in a starting role now that he's finally healthy. Ianu is a Ute rookie by way of Golden West (Calif.) College who lacks relevant experience, yet could have a higher ceiling than his competition.
Watch Out For … Palepoi to emerge into one of the leaders of the D-line. His experience in red and white may be limited, but his upside is not. He's a talented, hard-working interior lineman, with the tools and the motivation to do a surprisingly good job of filling the enormous shoes of Lotulelei.
Strength: Stopping the run. No, you don't get better by losing No. 92 to the NFL Draft, but Utah perennially does a nice job of filling gaps and preventing chunk yards on the ground. Palepoi and a healthy Tuipulotu are going to surprise with their ability on the interior, helping keep the Utes among the Pac-12's better run defenses.
Weakness: Proven depth. The first line has a chance to take opponents by surprise by being a handful, week-in and week-out. However, the starting unit better remain healthy because the Utes are light on depth and proven players on the B team. On the outside, for instance, the team is putting a lot of faith in Whittingham who has not played much at this level.
Outlook: The Utes have lost Lotulelei and two Krugers, Dave and Joe, yet still figure to be assertive at the point of attack. Now that Reilly has joined Orchard on the outside, Utah will be able to mount consistent pressure off the edge. And the combination of Palepoi and Tuipulotu possesses enough size, strength and experience to hold the line on running downs.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Utah doesn't have a lot of certainty at linebacker entering 2013. Senior Brian Blechen will be a notable exception. The former strong safety, who has moved liberally around the D, is filling in at ‘Stud" linebacker
now that Trevor Reilly has moved to defensive end. The 6-2, 212-pounder fancies himself as the warden of the back seven, a power puncher, with previous experience as a run-stopper. The three-time honorable mention all-conference selection, the last two in the Pac-12, is outstanding against the run, yet has also intercepted eight career passes. In a suspension-shortened 2012, Blechen was third on the team with 58 tackles and six passes defended, and is considered the catalyst for the rest of the Utah defense.
The staff will use the summer to decide between 6-0, 250-pound sophomore LT Filiaga and 5-11, 225-pound junior V.J. Fehoko at middle linebacker. Filiaga has the more prototypical frame for the position, a stout run defender who can take on offensive linemen. As a rookie, he started a pair of games, and made 32 tackles. Fehoko is much smaller and quicker, the kind of linebacker who won't get exposed in coverage. He started six games in 2012, but had just 30 tackles, which isn't going to hack it this fall.
Filiaga is also in the mix for a starting job at ‘Rover' linebacker with 6-1, 230-pound sophomore Jared Norris. Norris struggled to get on the field in 2012, making just two stops in seven games, but has used his offseason wisely by getting bigger and stronger. He shows good range in coverage and run defense, now needing to get a better understanding of where he belongs on the field.
Watch Out For … Blechen's comfort level at getting after the passer. The ‘Stud' position is designed for a linebacker who can rush the passer, something Reilly did rather well in 2012. Blechen, though, is a safety by design, with more of an eye on pass defense than the pass rush. He has got to be Mr. Versatile on defense for the Utes this season.
Strength: Range. The Utah linebackers are not very big, but they will cover an awful lot of ground, both on running plays and in coverage. Blechen and Filiaga, in particular, react very quickly, and will snap their hips back fluidly when it's time to blanket an opposing tight end or back slipping out of the backfield.
Weakness: Presence. The Utes will have a difficult time intimidating opponents with their linebackers, especially now that Reilly is operating from the first line of defense. The group is going to make plays from time to time, especially in space, but it will also buckle when run directly at.
Outlook: Blechen replaces Reilly as the new signature linebacker in Salt Lake City, and he'll contend for All-Pac-12 honors in his final year. After No. 4, though, the Utes are going to be somewhat pedestrian from the second level. The team still needs to figure out its starting lineup, a process that'll shift into high gear in the summer.
Unit Rating: 6.5
The Utah secondary is getting a facelift, especially now that Brian Blechen has returned to linebacker. The cover boy will be 6-1, 205-pound junior Eric Rowe who is back for his third year as a starter at free safety. He's the somewhat smaller, faster version of Blechen, a one-time safety, bringing a little more flash to the pass defense. The Utes' No. 2 tackler a season ago with 64 stops also had six pass breakups. He possesses the right size, athleticism and smarts to continue growing into a multi-dimensional defensive back. However, Rowe has just a single pick in each of the last two years, a level of thievery that the coaching staff would like to see improved in 2013.
Supplanting Blechen at strong safety will be junior Tyron Morris-Edwards who is coming off his best offseason with the program. He has steadily climbed through the ranks, preparing for this opportunity to make an impact in the starting lineup. The 6-1, 200-pounder has nice size and athleticism, lending hope that the Utes will be set at safety for the next two seasons.
Taking over as the veteran among the cornerbacks is senior Keith McGill, the third-year Ute whose career began at Cerritos (Calif.) College. He arrived with enormous expectations, all of which have been limited by injuries, most recently a shoulder problem that shelved him for 2012. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, McGill possesses a tantalizing blend of size, speed and agility.
Yin to McGill's yang in terms of experience and frame is 5-9, 173-pound redshirt freshman Justin Thomas, the frontrunner to win the other corner job. The precocious gem from the 2012 recruiting class is not very big, but he has the hips, instincts and closing speed to gradually blossom into a feisty and effective defender in coverage.
A pair of veterans, 5-9, 189-pound junior Joseph Smith and 5-9, 182-pound senior Michael Walker will resume their battle for the starting nickel job in August. Neither player has gotten on the field much as Utes, with Walker making nine tackles in 2012, and Smith appearing just two games.
Watch Out For … the career paths of the junior college transfers. Utah signed a pair of gifted juniors in February, 6-0, 187-pound CB Davion Orphey and 6-1, 213-pound S Tevin Carter. Carter is likely to provide support off the bench for Rowe, but Orphey is liable to push Thomas once he gets a firm grasp on the playbook.
Strength: Safety. Rowe is one of the better players at his position in the Pac-12, and Morris-Edwards is about to make a name for himself now that the opportunity is being presented. The Utes boast the kind of safeties that will defend the run, but are also versatile enough to help out the cornerbacks in coverage.
Weakness: Cornerback. As it stands now, Utah will take into the season two corners, one who's a rookie and one who has not been healthy enough to participate on a consistent basis. Yeah, maybe Thomas and McGill maximize their sizable potential concurrently, but the more likely scenario has the pair struggling when faced with stopping the Pac-12's better passing teams.
Outlook: Utah has had a reputation over the years for building quality pass defenses out of marginal high school and junior college recruits. But this season is going to present a few tougher challenges for the coaching staff. The safeties don't figure to be an issue, but Thomas and McGill have a lot to prove in their first serious action with the program.
Unit Rating: 7
The graduations of P Sean Sellwood and PK Coleman Petersen have the Utes retooling on special teams. Succeeding Sellwood will be sophomore Tom Hackett, the Melbourne, Australia who averaged 38.9 yards while splitting duties in 2012. He excels with his placement, dropping 15 of 25 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Filling the shoes of Petersen will likely be sophomore Andy Phillips. Although he hasn't been assured of anything yet, he was slightly more consistent in the spring than redshirt freshman Jamie Cutcliffe. Phillips also enjoys an edge on kickoffs, though the pair will resume their tussle again in August.
Sophomore Charles Henderson and junior Quinton Pedroza are going to be the two primary figures in the return game. Henderson was active on both punts and kickoffs in 2012, but neither Ute special teamer will be able to replicate the heroics Reggie Dunn displayed with four kick returns for touchdowns last year.
Watch Out For … Sutcliffe to get back in the hunt in the summer. He and Phillips jockeyed for position in the spring, with neither kicker earning a significant leg up. The rookie actually has a little more pop, so if even he can straighten out his kicks, he still has a shot at winning this gig.
Strength: Hackett's directional kicks. The sophomore may not be a boomer, but his angles and his hang time are going to greatly benefit the team's field position. Very few of his punts were even returned last season, a key reason why Utah stood No. 28 nationally in net punting.
Weakness: The uncertainty at placekicker. No, Petersen wasn't great a year ago, but he was a veteran that the program felt it could count upon. Not only do Phillips and Sutcliffe have no relevant experience at this level, but they also appeared skittish and inaccurate during spring drills.
Outlook: A decline on special teams will be inevitable at Utah now that Dunn, Sellwood and Petersen are all gone. But just how far will the unit slip? Although Hackett might eventually wind up being an upgrade at punter, the situations at placekicker and in the return game could prove costly in the fall if not properly addressed in the summer.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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