March 22, 2010

Utah defense looks to finish spring strong

The Utes had a productive opening two weeks of practices, and are now taking the week off for spring break. The time off of practices has become something of a tradition up on the Hill, giving the players time to heal the bumps and bruises as well as recharge the batteries and finish off the spring with intensity. Most of the installation work is done and from here on out the Utes will focus on technique and fine tuning. Though no one has taken hold of any open spots, the depth chart is starting to firm up a bit and position battles are tightening up.

The big news coming out of the first two weeks was bad, as starting middle linebacker Nai Fotu tore his ACL and will miss the 2010 season. Fotu does have a redshirt year available but what will become of Fotu's trademark explosiveness after tearing the same ligament in the same knee twice in 16 months?

Matt Martinez has taken most of the first team reps at middle linebacker and will compete with Boo Andersen, Jamel King and Chaz Walker[db] for the spot. Martinez has been playing well this spring but has a history of injuries. Should he remain healthy Martinez has the ability to succeed at the spot. Andersen could make a push for the starting spot, and he is a true inside linebacker; fast, physical, downhill player who loves to hit. Utah may decide to keep the competition open through spring and heading into fall when highly-touted freshman linebacker [db]V.J. Fehoko arrives on campus. Playing Fehoko as a freshman has always been a possibility and Fotu's injury makes it a near certainty. Fehoko has the "football IQ" to pick up the defense quickly and could make fall camp very interesting.

The linebacker spot was a big question heading into spring, though now all the focus is on the middle. Chad Manis and J.J. Williams have been playing well, and it does not appear the Utes will suffer much of a drop off at the strongside and rover positions. Williams is all over the field and has locked up the starting spot at rover, though he can play all three spots. Manis has done a nice job moving over from quarterback and looks and plays like a linebacker. For a player that came in with a reputation of being a "pocket quarterback" Manis has shown good speed and athleticism while covering backs and tight ends and looks like a complete linebacker. Should the Utes find a solid middle linebacker, the second level of the defense appears to be solid.

With Chris Washington spending some time in the Pit with minor injuries and Victor Spikes playing running back before he sprained his MCL, true freshman Damian Payne has been getting most of the reps at free safety. Payne has been doing a nice job but he needs reps in order to learn the defense. Payne has been up-and-down this spring, which is not unexpected. Payne admits that he has been a bit overwhelmed at times with the sheer volume of information and has been thinking instead of playing through the first two weeks. How Payne plays as he gets more comfortable out on the field will be critical to the Utah defense, as the Utes have to rely on an unproven player to step up at safety, be it Payne, Washington, or Spikes. At strong safety, Justin Taplin-Ross has been as advertised, showing his speed, range, and all-around skills. Taplin-Ross has been working on being a more physical "in the box" player and has made several nice plays at or behind the line of scrimmage in the first two weeks.

The battle to start at corner opposite Brandon Burton has been intense, though it appears none of the primary competitors Lamar Chapman, Kamaron Yancy, and Conroy Black have been able to create any separation. All have been playing well, though each has things to improve on over the rest of camp. Right now it appears this battle could continue on into fall camp. Black has been particularly impressive with his athleticism and physical play, but he also came in as the biggest unknown of the three. Yancy improved a great deal over the course of last season and has been playing tight coverage. Chapman is an excellent cover man on the outside and excels playing inside as a nickel back despite his lack of size. Depth could be an issue for the Utes, though Reggie Topps and Ryan Lacy are improving.

On the defensive line, the Utes have been playing excellent football, especially inside. Utah appears to be six-deep at tackle with Dave Kruger, Sealver Siliga, Latu Heimuli, James Aiono, Joape Pela, and Neli A'asa. Kruger and Siliga are known commodities and All-Conference caliber. Aiono has been playing terrific at times though still getting back in shape after not playing football in 2009. Heimuli has shown flashes of being the best of the bunch but is still too raw and inconsistent. Pela and A'asa have been surprises, though playing time will be difficult to earn,

End is a bit of a different story. With Derrick Shelby unavailable for spring practices due to injury, Utah is thin and inexperienced on the edges. Lei Talamaivao moved from tackle to end and has dropped 15 pounds to play the spot. Talamaivao is still learning the spot and it shows, as he looks a little uncomfortable at times, though he enjoys looking across the line and only seeing one offensive lineman instead of two. Christian Cox is the only known commodity on the line, and he has bulked up a bit in order to be an every-down end and play the run better. Junior Tui'one has looked good at times, and provides some size and athleticism. Freshmen Trevor Reilly and Eric Dago are still thin, and need to continue to add size and strength. Reilly has been playing well at times, especially in passing situations. Dago has flashed potential with his speed and burst.

With nine more practices to go before the spring game, the Utah defense is still looking for answers. Many will not be answered until the fall, though there are plenty of opportunities for a player to step up and earn a spot. The key positions to watch the rest of spring will be at middle linebacker and safety, as the other spots appear to be solid regardless of who emerges as the starter.

The Utes will return to practice on Monday, March 29th from 3-5 pm. Unless otherwise noted, all practices and scrimmages will be open to the public.


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