Trevor Reilly led Utah in tackles in 2012.
June 10, 2013
We take a look at the 2013 Utah Football team with part two of the season outlook, featuring a breakdown of the defense and special teams. Click here for part one, featuring the offense.
Strength: Defensive Line
What's New: The Secondary
Despite losing three starters to the NFL, including first-round draft pick Star Lotulelei, the defensive line remains fearsome. Utah has become a virtual feeder program for NFL defensive lines thanks to its perpetual depth at the position. This year's team is no exception.
"Once again, we find ourselves with good depth at the defensive line position," says Whittingham. "We've been fortunate to have a long run of talent on the defensive front and this year appears to be no different."
At tackle, senior Tenny Palepoi (6-2, 300) played in every game and started one as a JC transfer. He flew under the radar only because four-year starter Dave Kruger had first claim to the job. Now that the position is Palepoi's, he won't stay unnoticed for long.
"Tenny will be one of the best defensive tackles in the conference," predicts Whittingham, who hopes for the same of incoming junior college transfer Sese Ianu (6-2, 305). "Sese is just like Tenny. They are almost clones."
They'll be able to stay fresh the entire game thanks to three others designated for liberal playing opportunities: sophomore Viliseni Fauonuku (5-11, 285), senior LT Tuipulotu (6-1, 305) and redshirt freshman Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (6-1, 320).
Speed is the operative word at end with the relocation of two former starting linebackers. "The traditional big defensive end is becoming a thing of the past," says Whittingham. "The position has evolved into a hybrid now--part defensive lineman, part linebacker. We need our ends to fit that description moving forward."
Returning starter Nate Orchard (6-3, 255, Jr.) already did. Under the surname Fakahafua, he started at left end as a sophomore, earning honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors and racking up 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
Trevor Reilly (6-5, 255, Sr.), Utah's leading tackler in 2012 with 69 stops, earned honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors while splitting time between linebacker (eight starts) and defensive end (four starts). When Joe Kruger deferred his final season to enter the NFL, Whittingham quickly plugged in Reilly.
"Trevor is an ideal end for us," said Whittingham, referencing his quickness, length and pass rushing abilities.
Orchard and Reilly will share time with another converted linebacker--sophomore Jason Whittingham (6-2, 240)--who is listed as the co-starter at both ends. The fastest defensive lineman with his 4.58 40 speed, Whittingham gives Utah the ability to slide Reilly back to linebacker at times. Another slated to rotate in at end is senior Thretton Palamo.
As always, the coaching staff restocked the line with its recruiting class, adding three tackles and two ends. Along with Ianu, incoming freshmen Sam Tevi and Keio Vaenuku could crack the lineup early in their careers.
Linebacker lost two starters to the defensive line, but pulled a coup of its own by stealing Brian Blechen from the secondary. Blechen (6-2, 225), a three-time honorable mention all-conference choice and a former Freshman All-American, led the 2012 Utes in tackles per game and his five pass breakups ranked second.
Whittingham has wanted Blechen to play linebacker for awhile--he started the first four games of 2011 at linebacker before moving back to safety--and hopes the move is permanent this time.
"Brian brings athleticism and toughness to the position and he makes a lot of plays," says Whittingham.
Blechen headlines a group that should be vastly improved from a year ago, even with many of the same faces.
"We had talent last year, but the linebacker position was decimated by injuries," explains Whittingham. "All of those guys are back and they are a year more experienced."
V.J. Fehoko, LT Filiaga, Reshawn Hooker and Jacoby Hale all started at least one game for a unit wracked by injuries. All four are back and in contention for starting jobs, as is sophomore Jared Norris.
The sole addition--true freshman Uaea Masina--got a jump on his career by enrolling in January.
With the Utes playing a nickel back more often than not, they have five positions to stock and just one starter returning. Junior Eric Rowe has started at free safety since his true freshman season when he made four Freshman All-America teams. Rowe lost partner Brian Blechen to linebacker, so he'll be the veteran of the secondary.
The pending arrival of junior college transfer Tevin Carter, along with the emergence of Tryon Morris-Edwards and Charles Henderson at strong safety, gave the defensive staff the luxury of moving Blechen to linebacker.
"With the addition of Tevin Carter, the returning experience of Quade Chappuis and the progress made by Tyron Morris-Edwards and Charles Henderson, we feel good about strong safety," says Whittingham.
He's not as comfortable with corner and nickel, where Utah is starting from scratch. "We lost virtually every snap of corner play with the graduation of Ryan Lacy, Moe Lee and Reggie Topps. We are starting over," says Whittingham.
The leading contenders at corner are senior Keith McGill and redshirt freshman Justin Thomas. McGill played safety in five games in 2011 before missing the rest of the season with an injury. He also sat out all last year with an injury.
"We have a lot of talent at corner, but no Division 1 game experience," says Whittingham. Keith McGill has a great skill set for the position and Justin Thomas, Reginald Porter and Davion Orphey are also gifted athletes." The addition of incoming freshman Hipolito Corporan should add to an already talented group.
Up for Grabs: Place kicker
Sophomore punter Tom Hackett appeared in nine games last fall and the Australian was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week in his first game on American soil. Noted for pinning opponents deep in their own territory, he planted 15 of his 25 punts inside the 20-yard line, including seven inside the 10-yard line and four inside the 5-yard line. Hackett will also do the holding for field goals and PATs.
Other than Hackett, Utah's kicking game is devoid of NCAA experience.
"We don't anticipate having a two deep established at place kicker until well into fall camp," says Whittingham. "Andy Phillips improved dramatically in the spring and each of the other kickers progressed as well."
Phillips edged ahead of fellow redshirt freshman Jamie Sutcliffe and there is always the possibility that other kickers will walk on in August and throw their feet in the ring.
As for the return game, All-American and NCAA record holder Reggie Dunn left the position with impossibly high expectations.
Even so, the cupboard is not bare and there is still speed to draw on. Charles Henderson has been Utah's best punt returner for the past two seasons, although he missed most of his true freshman year with an injury. He handled 26 of the 31 punts last fall for 138 yards (5.3 average). Henderson and Quinton Pedroza are first in line to field kickoffs and Pedroza may also get a shot at punt returns. Also in the mix are Dres Anderson and Delshawn McClellon.