2008 Utah Preview - Defense
Utah P/K Louie Sakoda
Utah P/K Louie Sakoda
Posted May 20, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Utah Ute Defense

Utah Utes

Preview 2008
- Defense

- 2008 Utah Preview | 2008 Utah Offense
- 2008 Utah Defense |
2008 Utah Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Utah Preview | 2006 CFN Utah Preview

What you need to know:
The defense became a killer as last year went on, and if the linebackers can come through, this could be the Mountain West's best D. The secondary that led the nation in pass efficiency defense welcomes back four starters in a five-spot rotation (Utah often goes with five DBs) led by the all-star corner Brice McCain. FS Robert Johnson appears ready to be the next great Utah defensive back as he fills the leadership role left by Steve Tate. The pass rush has the potential to be dominant with the expected emergence of end Paul Kruger into a special player, while Koa Misi moved from tackle to his more natural end spot. The tackles might not be superior, but they're big. It'll all come down to the linebacking corps. Stevenson Sylvester will be an all-star at the Rover linebacker, but the other two spots will have to get by with serviceable talents.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Steven Sylvester, 86
Sacks: Paul Kruger, Steven Sylvester, Mike Wright, 3
Interceptions: San Smith, 4

Star of the defense: Senior CB Brice McCain
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior LB Mike Wright
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Paul Kruger
Best pro prospect: McCain
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McCain, 2) LB Stevenson Sylvester, 3) FS Robert Johnson
Strength of the defense: Cornerback, defensive end
Weakness of the defense:

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Is sophomore Isley Filiaga ready to step in and shine? The BYU transfer spent last year on the sidelines and now is ready to step in and be the star the team needs on the inside. It's not like last year's tackles were bad, but Filiaga is a potentially special player with ridiculous strength and a world of upside. The one-time record holder for the top bench press by a Utah high schooler, lifting 475 pounds, handling himself against power teams won't be a problem if he can get over a foot injury

Sophomore Lei Talamaivao will step in for Koa Misi at tackle and he needs to shine right away. Talamaivao saw time in seven games making 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, and while he still needs work and playing time, he has good size at 6-2 and 290 pounds with decent strength. He's expected to be a fixture up front for the next three years.

With the hopeful emergence of Talamaivao, junior Koa Misi can move to a more natural end spot. Undersized for the inside at 6-3 and 263 pounds, Misi still finished third on the team with 67 tackles with 2.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. A terrific athlete who was a JUCO star before coming over to Utah, Misi found a way to produce on the inside even though he was out of position. He wasn't a great tackle, but he was active. He should blow up on the outside.

On the right side will be sophomore Paul Kruger, a big-time talent who finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles to go along with three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. At 6-5 and 255 pounds, he's tough to throw over with five broken up passes. More mature than his class thanks to a two-year LDS church mission, he's hardly wet behind the ears. While he could use another ten pounds on his tall frame, he has the speed and the talent to grow into an even more dangerous pass rusher.

Projected Top Reserves: With Isley Filiaga having problems with a foot injury, junior Menape Eliapo stood out in spring ball and could end up being the starter on the nose. The 6-0, 303-pounder started first two games of the year before being replaced by Koa Misi. While Eliapo wasn't bad, he wasn't active enough despite his great athleticism. He proved to be better coming off the bench making 29 tackles and a sack, but now he could be the team's No. 1 anchor by fall.

6-4, 260-pound senior Greg Newman was a nice spot starter getting the call for the first two games of last year before the emergence of Paul Kruger. Newman isn't nearly the athlete Kruger is, and will get moved aside by Koa Misi on the left side, but he's still a good backup to count on after a 12 tackle, one-sack season.

Newman will be a big part of the rotation along with 6-3, 240-pound redshirt freshman Derrick Shelby, a pure passer who'll get plenty of time to develop on the outside behind Paul Kruger. He'll be a situational player who'll mainly be asked to do one thing; wreak havoc. He could be a constant in opposing backfields.

Watch Out For ... Kruger. He had a terrific first season, and he's only going to be better. With Misi working on the other side, Kruger should grow into an unstoppable pass rusher.
Size. There are good 300 pounders in the middle, good 300 pounders as backups, and big ends on the outside. There's no reason there should be the problems there were last year against the run with more beef on the inside this season.
Sure-thing tackles. Filiaga hasn't been able to show what he can do yet with his foot injury, Eilapo appears to be better, but he got shoved aside early last year. Talamaivao is a good prospect, but he hasn't had to shine for a full season. Misi can't go back inside again.
This won't end up being the Mountain West's best line, but the potential is there to be really good if the tackles are merely adequate If they hold their own against the run and let everyone around them free chances to do their jobs, the Utes will have plenty of big plays in the backfield. Koa Misi and Paul Kruger will be all-star ends, and there's good depth behind them.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: Gone is Joe Jiannoni after a slightly disappointing season in the middle, and in comes junior Mike Wright in the middle after making 22 tackles and three sacks as a reserve. The former walk-on is now a scholarship player, and while the Southern Utah transfer has made the most noise on special teams, he has the 230-pound size and the range to be all over the field.

The real excitement is over 6-2, 220-pound junior Stevenson Sylvester at the weakside spot the Utes call the Rover. A tremendous athlete with the speed to be like an extra safety and the toughness to hold up against the run, Sylvester overcame the ankle problem that plagued him his freshman season to finish second on the team with 86 tackles, three sacks and ten tackles for loss with five broken up passes. He earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors last season, but he could be a first teamer this year if he has another great season.

232-pound Noa Fotu is a former defensive end who got thrown into the mix early on as a special teamer. The sophomore ended  up making 11 tackles with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in his limited time on defense, and while he'll have to learn on the fly a little bit, he showed good promise last year with good instincts to get to the ball in a hurry.

Projected Top Reserves: Stevenson Sylvester is a sure-thing star at the Rover spot, but there has to be a spot somewhere on the field for 6-2, 220-pound redshirt freshman Mo Neal. A guided missile who was hitting everything in his path in spring ball, he's an athletic tackler who can do a little of everything well from rush the passer to dropping into pass coverage.

With Mike Wright still not a sure-thing in the middle, sophomore walk-on Matt Martinez needs to play a big role in the middle. While he has good size at 6-0 and 230 pounds and is physical, he doesn't have any appreciable experience. He needs to be a key part of the rotation right away.

Watch Out For ... the linebacking corps to not be quite as shaky as everyone might make it out to be. It's hardly going to be the team's strength, but there are just enough good options to come up with a functional year if it isn't asked to dominate.
Sylvester. As the one true stud in the corps, he'll clean up a whole bunch of messes from the weakside. With his range, he'll make up for the mediocre situation in the middle.
Veteran depth. There isn't any. Mo Neal is a great-looking prospect on the outside, but he hasn't done it yet in live action. The coaching staff will be holding its breath every time one of the starters takes an extra moment to get up.
Outlook: This could potentially be the team's weakest link and it could be a disaster if anything happens to Sylvester. Wright is a try-hard player in the middle, but he's limited, while Fotu is still an unproven prospect on the strongside. The starters are a question mark, much less the depth, but there will be plenty of tackles and decent overall stats just by being in the right spot. However, this group likely won't make too much of a difference.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Everyone returns in the Utah secondary except its best player, Steve Tate. Tate started out last year at free safety and moved to strong safety where Joe Dale will take over after coming off a Poinsettia Bowl MVP performance with 12 tackles and an interception against Navy. The 5-11, 197-pound junior was a strong reserve all season long making 40 tackles with an interception and two tackles for loss, and now he has to prove he can handle the full -time role.

The free safety spot is set with the return of junior Robert Johnson, a lanky speed defender who hits well and covers the whole field. The former JUCO transfer emerged late in the season as a star making 44 tackles and three interceptions on the season despite hurting his shoulder early on. At 6-3 and 185 pounds he has the size to handle the big targets to go along with the wheels to stay with the quicker ones.

Second-team All-Mountain West performer Brice McCain is the team's top cover-corner. While he's not huge at 5-9 and 189 pounds, he's physical enough to handle himself well in Utah's aggressive pass defense, but his game is all about speed, speed, speed. Clocking a 4.32 in the 40, he's a lightning-quick defender who showed more of a nose for the ball last season breaking up a team-high 11 passes to go along with an interceptions and 28 tackles.

On the other side of McCain will be R.J. Stanford, a former running back who saw time as a nickelback before taking over at right corner late in the season. The 5-11, 180-pound junior doesn't have Brice McCain's wheels but he's not far off. The former track star has no problem keeping up with any receiver and showed good tackling skills making 33 stops with two sacks and five broken up passes.

Utah likes to go with five defensive backs from time to time putting a nickelback on the field to create big plays and make things happen. Along with seeing time at corner, junior Sean Smith will be allowed to roam more using his 6-3, 217-pound safety-size and tremendous athleticism in more of a free-lance role. The former wide receiver can jump out of the stadium and has 4.5 speed, and he also has a nose for the ball leading the team with four interceptions to go along with 32 tackles and seven broken up passes.

Projected Top Reserves: Able to step in and start at any time is 5-8, 190-pound senior R.J. Rice, a versatile safety who'll start out behind Joe Dale at strong safety but can play just about anywhere. He started four games last season at free safety and ended up making 22 tackles with an interception. The former JUCO transfer was a pleasant surprise and should be the team's best backup.

Ready to step in and play a big role at corner is redshirt freshman Brandon Burton. At 6-0 and 180 pounds he has decent size and tremendous speed running a 21.3 in the 200 meters in high school. He'll need time behind R.J. Stanford, and he'll get it.

Watch Out For ... Johnson to be the next huge Utah star defensive back. There was Eric Weddle, then there was Steve Tate, and now it'll be Johnson who blows up into first team All-Mountain West status and the leader of of one of the nation's most productive secondaries.
Experience and production. Nine players who say time in the defensive backfield are back including four starters in a five position rotation. This was the nation's most efficient pass defense and it should get the job once again with speed, quickness, experience and talent.
Veteran backups. Yeah, there are plenty of lettermen returning, but there isn't a lot of on-field, developed depth. There's a huge, gaping drop-off from the ones to the twos.
Outlook: The secondary went from getting dinked and dunked on to death in 2006 to having the nation's most efficient pass defense and the best pass D in the Mountain West. Granted, the teams that could throw the ball (Louisville and BYU), did, but that doesn't take away from how good this group really was. The corners are lightning fast, the safeties are versatile and can pop, and there are promising backups to work into the fold all year around. With the expected pass rush Utah should generate up front, the secondary should be fantastic again.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Senior Louie Sakoda is a special player who'll be the difference in at least two games this year. As a punter he averaged an excellent 44.3 yards per kick and dropped a ridiculous 28 inside the 20 while forcing 23 fair catches. As a field goal kicker, he nailed 19 of 22 shots with all three of his misses coming from beyond 40 yards. He has the leg to hit from deep, nailing a 51-yarder last season, and he connected on ten of 13 from beyond the 40. He's one of the nation's most accurate all-around kickers and he'll be a weapon once again.
He's a rare candidate for both the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards.

Receiver Jereme Brooks will handle most of the return game after averaging 22.2 yards per kickoff return. It's asking a lot to replace Derrek Richards' 14.7-yard punt return average, but the ultra-quick Brooks can do it.

Watch Out For ... a grass roots movement to make Sakoda the Mountain West Player of the Year. He's really that good and is certain to win a few All-America honors.
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 weapon.
Kickoff returns. As a team they could be better after averaging an underwhelming 19.5 yards per try with the longest return just 46 yards. Brooks will be steady enough to average over 20 whenever he has the ball.
Outlook: As long as Sakoda can hold up, Utah could have the best special teams in the Mountain West and among the best in America. The coverage teams could stand to be tighter and Brooks has to prove he can be a solid punt returner, but that's nitpicking.
Rating: 9