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2009 Utah Preview - Defense
Utah DE Koa Misi
Utah DE Koa Misi
Posted Jul 3, 2009 2009 Preview - Utah Ute Defense

Utah Utes

Preview 2009
- Defense

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What you need to know: The defense dominated against the run last year allowing just 99 yards per game, and it should be even better with a great rotation up front, a fast, tough linebacking corps, and plenty of experience. The question on the line will be whether or not pass rushing terror Paul Kruger can be replaced, but Koa Misi is a strong threat from one side and Derrick Shelby has great potential on the other. Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright form a solid 1-2 linebacking punch, and safeties Robert Johnson and Joe Dale will earn all-star honors. While there’s some concern at corner with the loss of first-team All-Mountain West stars Sean Smith and Brice McCain, but there’s speed to burn at both spots.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mike Wright, 81
Sacks: Stevenson Sylvester, 3.5
Interceptions: Robert Johnson, 4

Star of the defense: Senior LB Stevenson Sylvester
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB R.J. Sanford
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Derrick Shelby
Best pro prospect: Sylvester
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Sylvester, 2) DE Koa Misi, 3) SS Joe Dale
Strength of the defense: Safety, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Cornerback, Interior Pass Rush

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Looking to step in and replace Paul Kruger, the breakout pass-rushing star of last year, will be Derrick Shelby, a 6-3, 250-pound sophomore who spent last season as a woefully undersized, but tremendously quick tackle making 31 tackles with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. Now in a far more natural position, he should blow up. Being physical against the run won’t be a problem, while he’ll now be able to use his burst and speed on the outside to get to the quarterback.

Senior Koa Misi had a nice year finishing third on the team with 68 tackles with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss on the way to second-team All-Mountain West honors. The 6-3, 256-pound former tackle is expected to take on more of a pass-rushing role and is expected to be more active and even more of a playmaker. A former JUCO transfer, he has plenty of experience with the tremendous athleticism to get a long look from the next level.

A starter early last year, sophomore Lei Talamaivao made one tackle, broke his leg, and was out for the year. The 6-2, 280-pounder saw time as a true freshman making 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, and now with a year to hit the weights as he recovered from his injury, he’s even stronger and should be even more of a rock on the inside.

The key for Sealver Siliga will be his weight. A bit too heavy at times, he’ll fluctuate between 310 and 325 pounds. Better at the lighter weight the sophomore has the 6-3 frame to handle the girth and is an active prospect, considering his size, at tackle making seven stops in a reserve role.

Projected Top Reserves: Working on the strongside, at least when Utah doesn’t go into a regular nickel package, will be 6-0, 224-pound junior Nai Fotu, a strong playmaker who came up with just 35 tackles last season but was good at getting into the backfield finishing with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He suffered a knee injury and could take a little while to get back in the swing of things, but he's tough, fast, and hits like a ton of bricks. He'll see time on the end, but he could move to linebackers.

Looking to make a name for himself is Paul Kruger’s brother, Dave Kruger, a 6-5, 272-pound redshirt freshman with the quickness of an end and the size of a tackle. He’ll start out playing on the outside in a rotation with Derrick Shelby, but he’s most likely destined to become part of the rotation on the inside.

6-0, 310-pound Kenape Eliapo is a bowling ball of a tackle and a perfect physical fit on the nose. The senior only played in six games after getting over a broken foot, he worked his way back into the rotation and was strong enough to play a major role in the Sugar Bowl. He only finished with 11 tackles with a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss, but he’ll be in the hunt for all-star honors with his quickness and run stuffing ability.

Part end and part tackle, 6-4, 274-pound junior Junior Tui’one will start out in a rotation on the nose but will likely see time at all four spots. After starting out his career with Idaho as a tight end, he went the JUCO route and now appears to be ready to make a big impact for the Ute line.

Watch Out For ... Shelby. It’s asking an awful lot for anyone to replace the 7.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss that Paul Kruger came up with last season, but Shelby just might be able to do it. He’s extremely quick and he should be a good closer. With all the attention paid to Misi on the other side, Shelby could be one of the Mountain West’s breakout performers.
Versatility. The Utah line always has interchangeable parts, occasionally going with undersized, quick tackles and big, tough ends. As last year showed, injuries don’t make too much of a difference because of all the different options to play around with.
The loss of Kruger. He opened up everything for the rest of the line. His activity and his ability to flash into the backfield caused teams to spend all their time worrying about the right side, and everyone else benefitted. While the overall production of the line should be there, Misi has to prove he can handle the move from the left to the right and be almost as productive.
Outlook: This won’t be the TCU defensive front, but it’ll be among the best in the nation against the run and the pass rushing should be tremendous from Misi and Shelby on the outside. There will be times when this group comes out and wins games by itself; the mediocre rushing teams won’t stand a chance. There’s a shot that this could grow into the team’s biggest strength with size, speed, depth, and talent.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: Senior Stevenson Sylvester had a nice season, finishing second on the team with 73 tackles and with half a sack in the regular season. And then came the Sugar Bowl where he destroyed Alabama with three sacks and seven stops in the dominant performance. The 6-2, 224-pound Rover/weakside linebacker is extremely fast and could be used as a safety if needed. He’s a strong tackler and isn’t afraid to mix it up against the big boys. As the Tide found out, he can be used as a pass rusher, too. If he stays healthy, something he wasn’t able to do early on in his career after suffering an ankle injury, he should be a first-team All-Mountain West performer.

Returning to the middle will be Mike Wright,, a 6-2, 239-pound senior who walked on to the team from Southern Utah and was a solid reserve. And then came last season when he was all over the field making 81 tackles with a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. Ultra-aggressive with decent range and size, everything will funnel into him and he should be the team’s leading hitter once again.

Even though he's not big, 5-10, 215-pound senior Kepa Gaison will be a key factor on the strongside. He started out his career walking on to the team as a kicker, and now he’s one of the team’s most versatile players able to see time at every linebacking spot. He made 29 tackles with 2.5 sacks, making the most noise against Alabama with two sacks and six stops.

Projected Top Reserves: Back in the mix will be J.J. Williams, a former walk-on who became the starter late in 2006. The 6-0, 225-pound sophomore is quick and mature after spending the last few years on a church mission. He won’t push Sylvester Stevenson for the weakside job, but he’ll see action at some point.

Eventually, Mo Neal will be a major factor. The 6-2, 221-pound sophomore is strong enough to see time in the middle, and fast enough to play either outside spot. A good recruit, he’s an active prospect who made nine tackles and a tackle for loss in a limited role. Now he’ll split time in the backup role in the middle and will take on more responsibility.

Watch Out For ... Sylvester. He earned second-team All-Mountain West honors last year, but he didn’t get a whole bunch of attention. After the Sugar Bowl, he’s on everyone’s radar as a pro prospect and as a potential all-around star. Now he needs to be sent into the backfield on a more regular basis.
Experience. The linebacking corps is loaded with experience and playmakers. This group will clean up anything the strong line doesn’t get to.
Pass rushing. The Alabama game was an aberration. It’s not that this group can’t get into the backfield, it just doesn’t do it all the time. With all the experience and all the speed, this group needs to wreak more havoc.
Outlook: Considered the team’s potential weak link last year, that all ended in a big hurry with the emergence of Wright in the middle and a strong year from Stevenson on the outside. There’s depth, youth to develop, and lots and lots of tackles and big plays to come. This could turn out to be the Mountain West’s best linebacking corps.
Rating: 7.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The big question going into last year was whether or not anyone could replace Steve Tate at safety. Joe Dale, coming off a MVP performance in the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl, took over the job and came up with a great year making 66 tackles with a sack, 3.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions. The 5-11, 200-pound senior is a good hitter with a good nose for the ball. He’ll be one of the leaders of the back seven.  

Robert Johnson, a former JUCO transfer, stepped in at free safety two years ago and made 44 tackles. He slipped a bit last season and made 41 stops, but he has great range and made four interceptions. The lanky 6-2, 195-pound senior has had shoulder problems, but he’s a good hitter with unlimited range. With the size to handle the bigger targets and the speed to handle the fast ones, he’ll be all over the field making plays against the pass.

5-11, 184-pound senior R.J. Stanford spent last year as a nickel back and a key reserve making 41 tackles with two sacks, but he didn’t do much against the pass. Now the former running back has to prove he can handle himself in a full time corner role and use his speed to make plays. The former track star has 4.29 wheels and has no problem keeping up with any speed receiver, and he has produced in the past in pass coverage. Now he has to be consistent.

Looking to take over the other starting corner job is Brandon Burton, a 6-0, 184-pound sophomore who saw a little bit of action as a reserve making three tackles. Extremely fast with 4.43 speed (he ran a 21.3 in the 200 meters in high school), he’s an all-around playmaker of a prospect who can stay with any speed receiver.

Projected Top Reserves: When the Utes go into a nickel formation and uses a fifth defensive back, which is often, it’ll be up to senior Damilyn Tanner to produce in place R.J. Stanford. The 5-10, 175-pound senior is a former JUCO transfer who could step in at corner if needed after making five tackles with two broken up passes.

JUCO transfer Kamaron Yancy started off his career at Cal before shining at Pierce College in Los Angeles. While he hasn’t played in a few years, the 5-9, 187-pound junior has the speed and quickness to step in and produce right away playing behind Brandon Burton.

Adding even more speed to the secondary is Reggie Topps, a 5-11, 180-pound redshirt freshman who can play free safety, nickel, or corner. Extremely fast, he ran a 21.87 in the 200 in high school and will be used in a variety of ways to get him on the field.

Watch Out For ... the corners to be fine. Stanford, Burton and Yancy are more than ready to produce now that they’re being given more responsibility. They might not be as good as Sean Smith and Brice McCain, but they’ll be fine.
Speed. Blinding speed. There won’t be any problems for this group to stay with any receiving corps and fly all over the field. If there are problems, it’s not going to be because of a lack of athleticism.
Replacing the production. Yes, there’s a lot of great speed and the corners should be fine, but Sean Smith was a freak of nature and Brice McCain was special. Both were first-team All-Mountain West stars.
Outlook: The speed in the secondary has been cranked up several notches over the past few years and the Utes have been among the nation’s leaders in pass efficiency defense. The safeties might not be superstars, but they’re good, they’re experienced, and they won’t make mistakes. Replacing all-stars Sean Smith and Brice McCain at corner will be next to impossible, but there’s a ton of speed and quickness at the two spots with Stanford and Burton two fliers.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: There’s no way Louie Sakoda, arguably the nation’s best all-around kicker, can be replaced. Senior Ben Vroman has a big leg and has been a strong kickoff specialist, but he’ll be pushed hard for the starting placekicking job by freshman Nick Marsh. Marsh has a good leg and could handle all the duties with a little bit of time.

There’s an on-going battle for the starting punting job with redshirt freshman Sean Sellwood and Vroman neck-and-neck. Sellwood has the inside track with a big leg and great range, but he hasn’t taken the job by the horns this off-season.

WR David Reed
will be the main kickoff returner after averaging 25.4 yards per try last year. Replacing Terrell Cole and Brent Casteel as the top punt return options will be Luke Matthews and Shaky Smithson, two quick backup receivers who should be better than what the Utes had last year.
Watch Out For ... Vroman to be fine as a placekicker. He won’t hit 22-of-24 kicks like Sakoda, but he’ll hit a couple of bombs and will be decent.
Reed. A weapon of a kickoff returner, he’ll set up the Ute offense around the 30-yard line on every attempt. Unlike last year, he’ll bust off a return for a score.
Punt returns and coverage. The Utes were awful at returning punts averaging just 6.39 yards per try, but the coverage teams were worse giving up 21.8 yards per kickoff return and 10.1 yards per punt return.
Outlook: You don’t get better by losing Louis Sakoda. The Ute kicking game will turn out to be fine with big legs and good prospects, but Sakoda hit 22-of-24 field goals, with the two misses from beyond 40 yards, and averaged 42.1 yards per punt putting 24 inside the 20 and forcing 18 fair catches. The kickoff returns will be a strength and the punt return game won’t be any worse. The team got by with mediocre all-around coverage teams last year and should benefit from a renewed effort to improve them this season.
Rating: 6