2007 Utah Preview - Defense
Preview 2007 - Defense
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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.
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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
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.
Strength: 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
Weakness: 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.
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
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.
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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
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.
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.
Strength: 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
Weakness: 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.