Preview 2008 - Defense
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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.
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
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: Linebacker
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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
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
Strength: 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
Weakness: 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.
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.
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 weapon.
Weakness: 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