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Statistically Speaking: Needs-Based Recruiting - Defense

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The Utes lost 17 seniors this year, including some dramatic play makers. What do the stats say are the needs the Utah Utes football team must address in recruiting? We break it down by the numbers.

Now that the dust has settled from the Las Vegas Bowl, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff hit the recruiting trail to add more depth and talent to the roster.
Now that the dust has settled from the Las Vegas Bowl, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff hit the recruiting trail to add more depth and talent to the roster.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

With the dominant victory over Colorado State, the Utes bid farewell to a successful 2014 campaign, along with 17 seniors. Some of these seniors were essential to the Utes’ play this season, others played supporting roles. This is the defensive half of the two-part series on what the Utes are losing to graduation- and how the coach’s recruiting efforts promise to fill those holes.

Defensive Backs:

The Utes lose some major players and household names this year. Eric Rowe, Brian Blechen, and Davion Orphey were all instrumental in the Utes success on defense this year. Chandler Johnson and Wykie Freeman also made contributions and are headed to the next chapter of their lives.

The Utes’ DBs were a dynamic group this year. The broke up 41 passes, picked off another 6, and played a role in the line of scrimmage dominance the Utes played all year, piling up 15 tackles for a loss. The ability of the cornerbacks to close quickly on screen passes and other edge attacks freed up the defensive line to crash the middle and punish quarterbacks and tailbacks. The Utes get most of their sacks through traditional blitzes and four man fronts, but Utah defensive backs also tallied 1.5 sacks.

Let’s break down the contribution of every Utah defensive back who registered at least a tackle this year.

Contributing DBs

Class

PBU

INT

TFL

SACK

TACKLES

Brian Blechen

SR

6

1

1.0

57

Eric Rowe

SR

12

1

3.0

57

Marcus Williams

FR

1

1.0

54

Dominque Hatfield

SO

9

1

1.5

35

Justin Thomas

SO

7

3.0

1.0

35

Davion Orphey

SR

5

1.5

22

Tevin Carter

SR*

1

2

3.5

16

Chandler Johnson

SR

9

Andre Godfrey

FR

1.5

0.5

8

Tavaris Williams

FR

1

4

Boobie Hobbs

FR

3

Wykie Freeman

SR

3

Mo Talley

SO

1

Brian Allen

SO

1

Nick Mika

FR

1

TOTALS

41

6

15

1.5

306

*Tevin Carter is expected to receive a medical redshirt and return next year, so I’m not counting him as a senior for the purposes of this analysis.

Overall, the Utes are returning 52% of their tackles, 63% of their tackles for a loss, 67% of their interceptions, and 44% of their passes broken up. This analysis highlights just how dynamic Tevin Carter was in just a few games, racking up tackles and disrupting the passing game. His return is essential to the Utes’ 2015 prospects.

A rash of injuries in the defensive backfield allowed for significant contributions from a number of underclassmen, and Ute fans should have confidence in their ability to fill in for Rowe and Blechen. Rowe’s ability to break up passes is impressive, though: he ranked 17th in the country in that metric. Between Carter and the demonstrated ability of the Utes underclassmen to contribute, the Utes are in decent shape for next year.

On the recruiting trail, the Utes already have commitments from four defensive backs. Two of them, Kyle Fulks and Cory Butler, are JC transfers; Ute fans can hope to see them contributing immediately. Butler in particular is a highly touted JuCo recruit. We’ll talk more about his abilities as a return man in the offensive half of this analysis, but he also promises to be in the mix from day one as a DB.

On the recruiting trail, the Utes have interest from a number of notable DBs, including Stanley Norman, Javaris Davis, and William ‘Junior’ Henderson. Norman and David have long lists, but the Utes are one of only two offers Henderson has received. A number of safeties also have the Utes on their lists, with Texas product Kenneth McGruder standing a cut above the others.

This is an area that the Utes have done very well indeed at reloading for 2015. Immediate contributions from Fulks and Butler should pave the way, and the Utes are loaded with capable underclassmen and exciting recruiting prospects.

Defensive Line and Linebackers:

The Utes fielded one of the top front sevens in the nation this year. The linebacker corps is staying mostly intact, although they are bidding farewell to Jacoby Hale. It’s at defensive end where the Utes are losing significant production.

Contributing LBs

Class

PBU

INT

TFL

SACK

TACKLES

Jared Norris

JR

1

13.0

4.0

108 (led team)

Gionni Paul

JR

1

4

3.0

1.0

61

Jason Whittingham

JR

1

1.0

17

Pita Taumoepenu

SO

4.0

4.0

14

Uaea Masina

SO

0.5

10

Marcus Sanders-Williams

SO

8

Jacoby Hale

SR

1.0

7

Christian Drews

FR

2

Sharrief Shah Jr.

SO

1

Tanner Larsen

FR

1

TOTALS

3

4

22.5

9

229

Jacoby Hale was not a major component of the defense this year, and the Utes will be fielding essentially the same unit as last year. They return 97% of their tackles, 100% of their passes defensed, interceptions, and sacks, and 96% of their tackles for a loss.

The underclassmen didn’t contribute much this year, but the Utes were led by a trio of dominant junior linebackers. If Gionni Paul can get himself healthy and stay that way, the Utes are set for next year at linebacker. Down the road, Pita Taumoepenu and Uaea Masina have both demonstrated an ability to produce at a high level; the jury is still out on the other linebackers on the roster (I had no idea that Sharrief Shah Jr. was on the team).

The Utes have already committed a pair of linebacker prospects, T.J. Kautai and Cody Barton. Both are slightly undersized at the position and were not heavily recruited, although if you don’t believe in Coach Whit’s ability to develop linebackers, you ought to have your head checked. Nonetheless, the Utes have their sights set on some high level linebacker prospects, and they don’t need much to feel good at the position.

Among players who have not made commitments yet, the obvious name is top-shelf prospect and Utah native Osa Masina. The general consensus is that the Utes aren’t going to land this whopper, but he would immediately be in the mix to land on the depth chart if he does shock everyone and select the Utes. Christian Folau, out of East high in Salt Lake City looks like a likely Ute commit, and would be a significant addition to the team. Rivals has him as a high 3 star, Scout as a 4. One signing like Folau or Masina would be enough to feel good about this LB class, given what the Utes already have on the roster. The same can’t be said for the D-line.

Given what the Utes are losing off the defensive line this year, and the relatively empty pipeline behind next year’s senior class, the defensive line should be a major point of emphasis for the Utes moving forward.

Contributing DLs

Class

PBU

INT

TFL

SACK

TACKLES

Nate Orchard

SR

2

20.0

17.5

81

Jason Fanaika

JR

1

8.5

4.0

54

Hunter Dimick

SO

2

14.5

10.0

52

Lowell Lotuleilei

FR

4.5

4.0

30

Sese Ianu

SR

1

1.0

1.0

28

Viliseni Fauonuku

JR

1

5.5

2.0

22

Filipo Mokofisi

FR

3.0

1.5

17

Clint Shepard

JR

4.0

1.0

15

Stevie Tu’ikolovatu

SO

1.0

7

Greg Reese

SR

2

Clarence Smith

FR

1

Wallace Gonzalez

FR

0.5

0.5

1

TOTALS

6

1

62.5

41.5

310

First of all, wow. What a productive, dominant defensive line. Nate Orchard is the biggest loss this year, without a doubt. The Utes defense caused a tremendous amount of havoc this year, and Orchard was responsible for a lot of it. Sese Ianu was a serviceable backup, but Orchard really accounts for almost all of what the Utes are losing. The Utes defensive line will return 64% of their tackles, 55% of their sacks, 66% of their tackles for a loss, 50% of their pass breakups, and Fanaika’s wild interception of Cody Kessler (although he was lined up at linebacker for that play). Given the modest contributions of Reese and Ianu, these numbers give a sense of just what Orchard meant to the team.

Hunter Dimick figures to step in and perform well as the star defensive end for the Utes. Fanaika is the obvious pick to bracket the other end of the line. Lowell Lotulelei’s impression of his older brother is spot on and other players have shown promise. Nevertheless, the Utes lack depth and experience at these positions and need to work to bolster this area.

The Utes have not recruited well this year along the defensive line, with no one currently committed who specializes in that area. This shouldn’t be much of a concern next year, with plenty of high-level athletes available to play those roles, but in the future it may start to be a problem. The Utes have recruited a number of athletes who have the right build to become defensive ends or tackles in the future.

The Utes don’t have any major targets at these positions. On paper, this looks to be a weakness in the Utes’ recruiting profile that they won’t be able to fix. In reality, barring a significant change in the coaching staff, there’s little reason to be concerned about the long term prospects of the defensive line.

The Overall Outlook:

The Utes have done an excellent job keeping a full pipeline of defensive back and linebacker prospects. The starting defensive line should be solid next year, but depth is an issue, and there simply aren’t enough players at these positions right now. The Utes coaching staff needs to go out and get some defensive line talent right away. Ideally, they will bring in three or more players: one junior college recruit who can immediately be a backup, and a couple of legitimate prospects with the size and skill set to compete in the Pac 12. The Utes will lack depth next year, and a JuCo commit may make a big difference.