2007 Utah Preview - Defense

Posted Apr 8, 2007

Preview 2007 Utah Utes

Utah Utes

Preview 2007
- Defense

- 2007 Utah Preview | 2007 Utah Offense Preview
2007 Utah Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Utah Preview 

What you need to know:
There's a ton of athleticism and loads of potential, but there are also several major concerns on the line and secondary. The linebacking corps will be fine with four starting-caliber players returning led by Joe Jianonni in the middle. Martail Burnett is an all-star waiting to blow up at end, free safety Steve Tate is good for 100 tackles, and Brice McCain has the kind of speed that NFL scouts tend to drool over. Everything else is up in the air with former receiver Sean Smith trying to handle the second corner spot, no experience to count on at strong safety, and unproven new starters at tackle and the second defensive end. In the end, the D will be fine in Mountain West play because of all the talent, but it might not be good enough to win the league title if the offense struggles for a game or two.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Steve Tate, 102
Sacks: Martail Burnett, 5.5
Interceptions: Several with 1

Star of the defense: Senior LB Joe Jianonni
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore SS Joe Dale
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Sean Smith
Best pro prospect: Junior CB Brice McCain
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jianonni, 2) FS Steve Tate, 3) DE Martail Burnett
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, pass rush
Weakness of the defense:
Second cornerback, proven strong safety

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The big question mark early on will be at tackle after losing all-stars Paul Soliai and Kelly Talavou. Sophomore Kenape Eliapo saw a little bit of time behind Talavou making seven tackles and a sack. He's bulked up to 303 pounds after playing linebacker in high school a few years ago. Now he's expected to be a tough, athletic interior pass rusher.

Senior Gabe Long will be the most intriguing starter with the hopes he can live up to his prep hype. One of the nation's top recruits when he went to USC in 2005, he ended up going the JUCO route before ending up at Utah last season where he made 23 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss behind Soliai. He's in shape at 290 pounds, but he has to prove he can be the anchor on the nose.

Senior Martail Burnett returns after leading the team with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss as part of his 42 tackles. The former safety is up to 252 pounds and is no longer a raw prospect on the line; he's a true end with tremendous moves, athleticism and experience.

260-pound junior Greg Newman saw plenty of action as the first man in the mix last season making 11 tackles and two tackles for loss. The former walk-on transfer from Colorado has a good motor and good potential to put up some big numbers with all the attention paid to Burnett on the other side.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Zeke Tuinei-Wily and redshirt freshman Meli A'asa, both 300 pounders, will combine to play behind Eliapo at tackle. A'asa was big recruit two years ago while Tuinei-Wily was just big, period. He slimmed down a little over the last year and should move better.

Senior Casey Sutera transferred from Southern Utah a few years ago and served as a deep snapper. Now he'll backup Long as an undersized, more athletic option on the nose. JUCO transfer Aaron Tonga comes over from Mt. San Antonio College and should be in the rotation right away. He's 290 pounds and tough.

On the outside, 252-pound Alex Puccinelli is like another starters on the end making 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year. At 252 pounds, he has decent size behind Burnett and could play on the other side in place of Newman if needed. JUCO transfer Koa Misi is a fantastic athlete who earned first-team all-conference honors at Santa Rosa JC. He'll start out behind Newman but will get every chance to win the starting job.

Watch Out For ... the front four to be the team's biggest problem early on. It's not like the line was a rock against the run last year when it had Soliai and Talavou, and now there's a downgrade in talent on the inside. After only cranking out 26 sacks last year, there might not be much more.
Burnett. He's the only returning starter, but he's a good one worthy of more attention than he got at the end of last year. Now this is his line and he'll be the focus. He's good enough to come through with a big season even if he's double-teamed.
A second defensive end. Newman isn't bad and Puccinelli and Misi should be fine, but are any of them able to take advantage of having Burnett on the other side? That could be the key to the team's season.
Outlook: There's decent size and plenty of players who look the part, but this wasn't a special line last season when it had two all-star tackles and Burnett on the outside. If this group can equal last year's production it'll be a big win, but getting to the quarterback more and holding up against the run better than last year's starting four would be a huge boost to the rebuilding defense.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: Senior Joe Jiannoni has been one of the team's top tacklers over the last two years following up a 73 tackle sophomore season by turning into more of a pass rusher cranking out four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss along with 92 stops. He's an active defender in the middle with excellent speed and a high motor that always gets him around the ball. He never takes a play off.

Seniors Malakai Mokofisi and Kyle Brady had basically been co-starter at the strongside linebacker spot for the last two seasons. Mokofisi, at 243 pounds, is bigger, but the 235-pound Brady, a former running back, made more plays last year with 46 tackles and a sack while breaking up four passes. Mokofisi is a former safety who was great at getting into the backfield making 5.5 tackles for loss and 38 total stops.

210-pound sophomore Stevenson Sylvester was the starter as a true freshman before an ankle problem relegated him to a backup. Even so, he still made 23 tackles and an interception and now has the job all to himself with former starter J.J. Williams on a church mission.

Projected Top Reserves: 230-pound redshirt freshman Matt Martinez brings more size to the Rover linebacker spot than Sylvester, but he isn't as athletic. Sophomore Mike Wright will be the understudy in the middle behind Jianonni and will likely take over next year. The sophomore transferred over from Southern Utah and made four tackles on special teams. With the potential to play on the outside, he has to prove he can be physical enough in the middle.

Watch Out For ... the linebacking corps to be the strength of the defense early on. Jianonni is the team's tone-setting leader now that Eric Weddle is gone, while Brady, Mokofisi and Sylvester all have the starting experience to be more than fine.
Getting to the quarterback if needed. While holding up better against the run will likely be priority one, this group has the quickness and general instincts to overwhelm at times if the line is doing its job up front. Jianonni can do whatever he wants, Sylvester is a safety playing outside linebacker and Mokofisi and Brady can both move.
Overall depth. While the top four players are fine, there's a big, big drop-off in talent. If injuries hit, there will be huge problems. Jianonni can't go down.
Outlook: Outside of Jianonni, this isn't a special linebacking corps by any means, but it's serviceable enough to get by in the Mountain West. Considering the issues on the line and the secondary, the coaching staff isn't going to worry much about it. Consistency against the run will be the issue every weeks, but it'll have a few big games where it makes big play after big play in the backfield.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Forget about replacing All-American Eric Weddle; Utah doesn't have anyone remotely in his category. Looking to give it a try is former wide receiver Sean Smith, who has good speed, great athleticism, and at 6-3, 217 pounds, is one of the nation's biggest corners. He only made one catch for 12 yards last season before moving over to the defensive time for the bowl game finishing with two tackles. While he's an imposing looking defender, teams will pick on him until he proves he's not just a wide receiver playing corner.

On the other side will be junior Brice McCain, who started every game last season and held up well with a team leading five broken up passes. He goes from getting picked on with everyone staying away from Weddle to the number one cover-corner. Speed isn't an issue clicking in a 4.32 in the 40, but picking off passes is with only one despite being thrown at repeatedly. He's also a tremendous kick returner averaging 22.4 yards per try last season.

Senior free safety Steve Tate led the team with 102 tackles to go along with 2.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss despite missing a game. He plays bigger than his 5-11, 195-pound size and never misses a tackler. The former walk-on from Utah State can get into the backfield, hit like a strong safety, and cover like a corner. Now that Weddle is gone, he's the star of the secondary who'll have to pick up the slack for the lost big play production.

Sophomore Joe Dale will be the big concern early on as the new starting strong safety. Mostly a special teamer last year making six tackles, he'll have to take over for the ultra-reliable Casey Evans, who took back the job when Weddle moved to corner.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomores Justin Jones, Elijah Wesson and R.J. Stanford will combine with redshirt freshman Mookie Murphy to provide the corner depth and nickel and dime backs. Jones will start out behind Smith on the right side with the most potential of the four with excellent quickness and tackling ability making seven stops in five games of action. Stanford's a former running back who made five tackles last year playing on special teams. Wesson will likely only make an appearance in dime packages, while Murphy should find a way onto the field with some of the best wheels on the team. He was a Utah state high school sprint champion.

JUCO transfer Deshawn Richard will be neck-and-neck with Dale for the starting strong safety job bringing more size, speed and experience after starring for Victor Valley College.

R.J. Rice
, a JUCO transfer from Southern Utah, will provide the biggest push for backup time behind Tate at free safety, but he'll likely only play on special teams.

Watch Out For ... the secondary to not be as bad as many will make it out to be. Everyone was able to rely on Weddle to make the big plays when needed, and now Tate and McCain should shine now that they're out of the shadow. They'll be more than just competent.
There's a nice blend of talents. There's just enough speed, especially if Murphy contributes right away, to run with anyone in the Mountain West, while Tate can pop. The hope is for strength in numbers needing at least one of the corner prospects to emerge as a viable starting caliber playmaker.
Second corner and strong safety. Smith might be special considering all his skills, but he'll be a question mark. Strong safety will be a concern until someone starts to look like a reliable starter.
Outlook: Despite having Weddle and a few other excellent players in McCain, Evans and Tate, the secondary was merely average getting dinked and dunked on to death. Tate and McCain should be better considering their experience, and Smith will turn out to be fine once he figures out what he's doing. Dale and Richard had better be solid at strong safety or there might be big trouble.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The kicking game is all about junior Louie Sakoda, who had an amazing year punting the ball as Utah finished first in the nation with a net average of 41.58 yards per kick. He's a phenomenal directional kicker putting a whopping 52 punts inside the 20 over the last two seasons while forcing 19 fair catches. He has a big leg as a punter and a decent one as a placekicker connecting on 16 of 20 field goal attempts with three of the misses coming from beyond 40 yards. He's a rare candidate for both the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards.

Corner Brice McCain averaged 22.4 yards per kickoff return and should be a star again. Brian Hernandez and Derrick Richards will have to replace Marquis Wilson returning punts after he averaged a nice 11.2 yards per try.

Watch Out For ... the special teams to be tremendous once again. Sakoda is the real deal, while Utah's return game is always excellent.
Sakoda. It's a dream to have a player who can do all the things he can. His ability to pin teams deep makes him a true weapon.
The only possible concern will be the punt returners since they're relatively new. It's nitpicking.
Outlook: As long as Louie Sakoda doesn't falter under the weight of having to carry the entire kicking game and is able to do what he did last season, Utah will have some of the best special teams in the nation. Brice McCain has the potential to be a special kickoff returner.
Rating: 9.5


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