SALT LAKE CITY — Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is seeing something special in training camp. The defense is flexing its considerable muscle in a variety of ways.
“I love the energy and I love the leadership. I think we have more leadership on this team than we’ve had in a while,” Scalley said. “On the defensive side of the ball, from my perspective, that’s what I see.”
Scalley noted that the leaders include Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Bradlee Anae on the line; linebackers Sunia Tauteoli, Cody Barton and Kavika Luafatasaga; Chase Hansen at the safety spot; plus cornerbacks Casey Hughes and Julian Blackmon.
“That’s what you’re looking for,” Scalley said. “You’re looking for a guy or two at each position group to kind of hold their guys accountable.”
Despite heavy graduation and NFL losses, Utah’s defense is reloading as the Aug. 31 season opener against North Dakota approaches. The Utes have some significant holes to fill with the departures of starters Hunter Dimick, Pita Taumoepenu, Pasoni Tasini, Reggie Porter, Brian Allen, Dominique Hatfield, and Marcus Williams.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good on defense when all is said and done. We’ll have a pretty stout defense,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Right now I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
Sophomore Bradlee Anae, a projected starter at defensive end, expressed confidence that this year’s defense could be even better than last year’s ‘D’. He said the chemistry of the defense, as a whole, is that of a much closer group.
And there’s more.
“We have a better mindset overall as a defense,” Anae said. “A lot of tenacity with this defense.”
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Utah topped the Pac-12 in rushing defense in 2016. The Utes surrendered just 128.7 yards per game. They also ranked in the top half of the conference in pass-efficiency defense (122.4 rating), total defense (383 ypg) and scoring defense (23.9 ppg).
Utah’s defense also proved to be opportunistic, picking off 18 passes and recovering 13 fumbles last season.
“Turnovers have always been a huge positive for us throughout the past few seasons and that’s going to continue to be an emphasis,” Scalley said.
Leading the charge is an experienced defensive line. Seniors Filipo Mokofisi and Lotulelei man the tackle spots, while Kylie Fitts provides additional veteran leadership at the opposite end of Anae. The projected starters are backed by a deep group of reserves that include Maxs Tupai and Caleb Repp at ends, as well as tackles Leki Fotu and Alani Havili-Katoa on the interior.
🎥: The @Utah_Football D-line had this nice sack in the 2-minute drill, and it was complemented by the Filipo Mokofisi (@5ilipo) finger wag pic.twitter.com/6f5swGwCA6
— Brandon Judd (@brandonljudd) August 8, 2017
Luafatasaga and Tauteoli give the Utes senior experience at linebacker. Barton, a junior, made 20 tackles against Oregon last season.
The secondary, meanwhile, is relatively inexperienced.
“That’s where we have to make our money in this fall camp — is finding out those guys that can replace the seniors that took off,” Scalley said.
Hansen, who has yet to fully participate in camp because of an undisclosed “lingering” injury, is the lone returning starter. The strong safety made a team-high 90 tackles as a sophomore. Junior college transfer Corrion Ballard is projected to be the starting free safety. Backups Phillip Afia and Marquise Blair have drawn praise in camp.
The competition at cornerback has been keen. Highly-touted freshman Jaylon Johnson is performing well. Coaches have also noted the play of sophomore Julian Blackmon and junior Casey Hughes. Freshman Nygel King and junior Tyrone Smith opened camp on the depth chart. At nickel, senior Boobie Hobbs is being pushed by guys like sophomore Terrell Burgess and freshman Javelin Guidry.
“I feel like we’re in a good spot right now. Obviously we still have a long ways to go with the two weeks we have of camp still,” Lotulelei said. “But I like where we’re at right now. I think everybody’s starting to buy in and just kind of do what the coaches say. So I think if everybody just gets on board and just listens to the coaches, do what they say, then I think we’ll be fine.”
Whittingham is also pleased with how things are trending.
"They’ve got to keep working. They have not arrived. But we’ve got a chance to be pretty formidable on defense, particularly if the secondary can continue to progress and take forward steps," said Whittingham, who added that the defensive line may be the deepest position on the team and that the linebackers are all veterans. "So we’ve got a chance to be good, but just a chance. We’ll see how hard they work the next three weeks."