Utah Preview 2006 - Defense

Posted Aug 7, 2006

Utah Utes Preview 2006 - Utah Ute Defense

What you need to know ... The defense doesn't get the publicity of the offense, but it's effective and should be good enough to win with after finishing second to TCU in most of the big categories. Several players are being moved around and nothing will be set in stone with all the different looks defensive coordinator Gary Anderson will provide. The biggest change is the move of top safety Casey Evans to linebacker giving the defense more of a 4-2-5 look despite really being a 4-3. Eric Weddle will be the star of the secondary either at strong safety or corner, while the line should be great against the run if nose guard Paul Soliai can be strong right away.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Casey Evans, 89
Sacks: Eric Weddle, 4
Interceptions: Casey Evans, 5

Star of the defense: Senior SS Eric Weddle
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior NG Paul Soliai
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Brice McCain
Best pro prospect: Weddle
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Weddle, 2) LB Casey Evans, 3) LB Joe Jiannoni
Strength of the defense: Versatility, run defense
Weakness of the defense:
Cornerback experience

Defensive Line
A work in progress throughout last season when end Marquess Ledbetter got hurt, the line started to come together by the end of the year and now should be much better even without all-star tackle Steve Fifita. Kelly Talavou will move over from nose guard to the open tackle spot and former JUCO All-America Paul Soliai will be the new rock in the middle. Most of a pass rush from the ends would be nice now that Martail Burnett and Soli Lefiti are experienced veterans. There's good depth that just needs a little more time to play.
The key to the unit: Paul Soliai. His emergence on the nose will allow everything else to work.
Defensive Line Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- DE Martail Burnett, Jr. - 53 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 7 TFL
The former safety wasn't a top pass rusher last rusher last season, but he needed time to figure out what he was doing. Even so, he still finished fifth on the team in tackles and held up well. Now he's up to 252 pounds and should be more of a force in all areas.

- NG Paul Soliai, Sr. - 5 tackles, 1 sack
The former JUCO All-American will take over on the nose with Kelly Talavou moving over to tackle. At 6-2 and 305 pounds, he has the size to clog things up inside, but he's still learning how to be a top defensive lineman after coming to Utah as an offensive lineman. With his size and surprising athleticism, he should be fine.

- DT Kelly Talavou, Sr. - 31 tackles, 1.5 sacks
While he's not Steve Fifita, the 305-pound transfer from Idaho is a rock-solid run defender who did a great job on the nose last season. He'll take over at tackle but could see time on the nose, as well, where he was on the verge of all-conference honors.

- DE Soli Lefiti, Sr. - 24 tackles, 1 sack, 3.5 TFL
It took a little while for the 265-pound senior to work the kinks out at end, but the light went on over the second half of the season and he became a steady starter. The former JUCO transfer needs to be a more productive pass rusher and needs to get past a shoulder problem that kept him out this spring.

Top Backups
- DE Alex Puccinelli, Jr. - 7 tackles, 1 TFL
Puccinelli was supposed to be in the rotation at Open End last year, but Martail Burnett turned out to be too good to get off the field. At 6-1 and 245 pounds, he has decent size to go along with plenty of practice experience.
- NG Derek Beardall. Sr. - 2 tackles, 1 TFL
The walk-on from the JUCO ranks saw a little bit of time as a reserve last season, and now he appears to be good enough to be a key part of the tackle rotation behind Paul Soliai.
- DE Casey Sutera, Jr.
The walk-on transfer from Southern Utah got his feet wet this spring with Soli Lefiti out. He still needs time and he's not going to be a star, but he showed he can be a decent backup.

There's returning production and plenty of good players to choose from, but the job will be to get all the pieces to fit in the right spots. Joe Jiannoni returns to the middle after being tried out on the outside this spring, while star safety Casey Evans takes over the job on the Rover side. Kyle Brady got starting time over the second half of last year and should be better on the strongside. There are several decent backups to create a decent rotation.
The key to the unit: Can Casey Evans shine at outside linebacker? The defense can't afford to lose a top defender from the secondary. The spot in the middle needs to be solidified.
Linebacker Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- Casey Evans, Sr. - 89 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 TFL, 4 interceptions, 3 broken up passes
A star at free safety last season in place of Morgan Scalley, Evans led the team in interceptions and finished second on the team in tackles on the way to Second Team All-Mountain West honors. Now he'll be tried out at Rover linebacker to use his speed and range to be even more of an all-around playmaker. The former walk-on is only 6-0 and 200 pounds, but he's a good hitter.

- Joe Jiannoni, Jr. - 73 tackles, 2.5 TFL
Jiannoni was one of the surprise stars of last season finishing as the team's fourth leading tackler from his spot in the middle. He was tried out at the Rover linebacker this spring to replace Spencer Toone, but he's more natural in the middle. He's a good-sized hitter at 235 pounds.

- Kyle Brady, Jr. - 25 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 interception
The former running back turned into a defensive back and then moved to linebacker where he got four starts. A star on special teams, the 232-pound junior is growing into solid all-around defender with his good speed.

Top Backups
- Malakai Mokofisi, Jr. - 15 tackles, 2 TFL
Mostly a special teamer so far, Mokofisi moved over from safety and saw a little bit of work on the strongside starting the first three games. While he's not the same playmaker Kyle Brady is, he'll be a key reserve.
- Loma Olevao, Jr. - 3 tackles
It has been a battle for time in the middle with the possibility of Joe Jiannoni moving to the outside, but Olevao appears to be good enough to hold down a reserve spot. He's a former tight end with good speed and nice size at 232 pounds.

Defensive Backs
One of the Mountain West's best pass defenses, several jobs are still up for debate until the opener. All-American Eric Weddle is the team's best corner, but he'll likely end up at strong safety with several good corner options ready to shine. Eric Shyne, Shaun Harper, Brice McCain and Mombroso Washington are good-sized prospects with speed. Steve Tate will step in at free safety in place of Casey Evans, but he could end up at strong safety if needed.
The key to the unit: Tighten up a little bit. There's too much talent to allow 224 yards per game and 19 touchdown passes.
Secondary Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- CB Eric Shyne, Sr. - 9 tackles
The former Washington Husky went the JUCO route before coming to Utah. He'll get the start on the left side after starting to come on at the end of last season. His emergence will be key to allow Eric Weddle to stay at safety.

- FS Steve Tate, Jr. - 46 tackles, 1 interception
Tate takes over the free safety spot left by Casey Evans, who moved to outside linebacker. A physical enough player to step in at strong safety if needed, the former walk-on has the ball skills to grow into an excellent free safety. He dominated in the Emerald Bowl and should be one of the team's top tacklers.

- SS Eric Weddle, Sr. - 78 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 TFL, 3 interceptions, 12 broken up passes, 3 forced fumbles
One of the nation's best defensive backs, Weddle has 213 career tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and nine sacks to go along with a boatload of big plays against the pass. He's a phenomenal all-around athlete who has seen time almost everywhere throughout his career from safety to cornerback to quarterback to punter to punt returner. A more natural corner who helped erase Georgia Tech star receiver Calvin Johnson from the gameplan in the Emerald Bowl, he'll start out at strong safety.

- CB Brice McCain, Soph. - 12 tackles
The speedy sophomore is on the verge of big things at right corner. He has the wheels to grow into a dangerous kick returner and the athleticism to develop into a shutdown corner.

Top Backups
- CB Shaun Harper, Sr. - 19 tackles, 2 interceptions
In the hunt for a starting corner job, Harper has excellent speed and is a good open-field tackler. He'll back up Eric Shyne on the left side but will end up seeing time on both sides as well as safety.
- CB Mombroso Washington, Jr.
The JUCO transfer is a bigger option at right corner than Brice McCain, but he's not as fast. Toughness won't be an issue; the 25-year-old enlisted in the Army and served in Iraq.
- S John Peel, Soph. - 3 tackles
The former wide receiver was limited a bit last season after recovering from a knee injury. Now he'll be the top backup at both safety spots and has the potential to be a star with great speed and good size.

Special Teams
For the moment, Louie Sakoda is the entire kicking game, but he'd be better served concentrating on one thing. Ben Vroman will push for the placekicking duties and Brent Rawlings will try to help out as the backup punter. Kick returns weren't a problem last season averaging 22.1 yards per return, but Sakoda's problems led the way to 23.8 yards per return from the opponents. Eric Weddle is too good a punt retuner to only average 6.4 yards per attempt.
The key to the unit: Louis Sakoda has to be a steady placekicker and get more blast on his kicks.
Offensive Line Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- PK/P Louie Sakoda, Soph. - 54 punts, 2,002 yds, 37.1 yards per kick, 22 inside the 20
Sakodo will take over for Dan Beardall, who nailed 16 of 19 field goals last year, and is a solid directional punter. He has the leg to get more blast on his kicks and be more effective on kickoffs.

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