The defensive secondary, and particularly the cornerbacks, has been a focus for the Utes after struggling to take the ball away last season, as well as the departure of Keith McGill to the NFL. The Utes cornerback position only had one interception last season when McGill picked off Brett Hundley and returned it for a touchdown. The only other two interceptions for the Utes came from strong safety Michael Walker and linebacker Trevor Reilly. The Utes won’t have any of those three players back this year.
Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said the Utah defense prides themselves on two positions, defensive line and cornerbacks. The Utes have a history of putting guys from those positions in the NFL, and Shah feels two Utes corners have a real shot at the NFL this year, Eric Rowe and Davion Orphey. For now, though, they will be anchors for the Utes' defense.
Here’s how the position group stacks up as of now:
|PLAYER||HEIGHT||WEIGHT||YEAR IN SCHOOL|
|CORNERBACK 1||Davion Orphey||6-0||185||senior|
|CORNERBACK 2||Reggie Porter||5-11||181||sophomore|
It should be noted Eric Rowe is also listed as first-string free safety, which means the Utes aren’t 100 percent sure where they want him. Rowe is certainly capable at both positions. Where he fits in the defense will be left up to linebacker depth, which will decide where Brian Blechen goes, as well as how Tevin Carter performs in fall camp. There is still a lot to be determined.
Coach Shah told the media this spring, "I love his attitude. I love everything about Eric Rowe… He’s unbelievably intelligent."
While overconfidence and even trash-talking is stereotypical of cornerbacks, Shah says Rowe isn't like that. "Not him. He’s a workman."
Reggie Porter is another guy that should excite Utah fans. He made some unbelievable plays throughout the spring session. He had his mistakes as well, but, at this point, it seems he can match up with some big-time receivers.
"Last year, he started a few games, and he was banged up a bit, but he was also a freshman," defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said about Porter. "Now that he has that year under his belt, he feels a lot more comfortable out on the field, and he's D-ing up some really good receivers. It's not perfect, but for a redshirt sophomore to do what he's doing, I'm really excited."
Utah’s cornerbacks are a year more experienced and are hungry to redeem themselves after underperforming last year. Compound that with the departure of many star Pac-12 receivers like Marqise Lee and Brandin Cooks, and the Utes cornerbacks look to have a good year in front of them.
I asked Coach Shah how he felt the corners would stack up against the big-time offenses on the schedule this year. "A lot better," he said. "Last year, we had a lot of trepidation. When you have even one season of experience… that gives you tremendous ability to have more confidence in yourself, and that confidence is huge. The type of plays we’re making right now, we didn’t make last spring. We’re in a better position by having more experience, and our defense, knowing our boys can compete with the talent we’re going to see every Saturday, that gives you more confidence."
The Utes are going to be playing a 4-2-5 defense for most of the season, as opposed to the usual 4-3 base formation the Utes have played in the past. Replacing a linebacker with a cornerback will counter spread sets with four-wide receivers, as well as the general speed in the conference. This will also help with linebacker depth, given the injuries to Gionni Paul and Jacoby Hale.
The Utes are going to be facing several future NFL quarterbacks and receivers this year (not to mention first round draft talent), but they’re going to be ready for it.