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More Questions Than Answers for Defense at Utah Spring Game

With as many as 10 projected starters out, Utah's defense produced more questions than answers at the annual Red-White Spring Football Game Saturday afternoon. However, some new players got a chance to shine, highlighted by Utah State transfers Jason Fanaika (defensive end) and Sharief Shah, Jr.

DT Vilseni Fauonuku and the Utah Utes defense have questions to address heading into fall.
DT Vilseni Fauonuku and the Utah Utes defense have questions to address heading into fall.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

While the annual Red & White Spring Football Game certainly showed off some much needed offensive energy to the more than 12,000 Utes fans in the stands at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon, neither the red or white team was able to answer the many lingering questions about the defense. With as many as 10 potential starters missing from the defensive ranks, there were few answers regarding what to expect from the Utes defense come August.

Head Coach Kyle Whittingham was satisfied with the defense’s performance, despite the limited action they engage in during spring scrimmages.

“I thought the front line played pretty good today,” said Whittingham.

Missing from the field today were senior safeties Brian Blechen and Tevin Carter, senior linebacker Jacoby Hale, senior defensive tackle Sese Ianu, senior defensive end Nate Orchard, senior cornerback Davion Orphey, senior safety/cornerback Eric Rowe, and sophomore defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and junior linebackers Jason Whittingham and Gionni Paul.

Rowe and Orchard both sat out with linebacker Jared Norris from Saturday’s action as per coaches’ decisions, not necessarily injured, but rather to limit their risk of injury prior to fall camp. All three were critical players in the Utes’ defensive strategies last season, so it’s no surprise that head coach Kyle Whittingham, as well as the rest of the coaching staff, decided to mitigate the risk of injury.

Saturday’s game did show some sparks for the defense, although due to the vanilla style of defense played during the spring game, whether or not those sparks will turn into flames come August remain to be seen.

Red team quarterback Brandon Cox threw two interceptions, one to freshman defensive end Filipo Mokofisi and the other to freshman linebacker Sal Velasquez. After the defense made only three interceptions last year, it was encouraging to see one in each of the halves on Saturday, although that double-edged sword potentially raises questions about Cox’s consistency to accurately read the field.

Junior defensive end Jason Fanaika also played well on Saturday, showing great field awareness as he forced some plays out of bounds. As an upperclassman, he also brings needed experience to field for the Utes as they continue to switch around the depth charts.

“Fanaika is going to be a good player for us this year,” said Whittingham.

The white team was led by Utah State transfer Sharief Shah, Jr, son of Utah's defensive backs coach, with 11 tackles, six solo. The red team was led by Alex Whittingham with a game-high 12 tackles. However, it’s going to be fall that ends up being the big test for the Utes, especially as they begin to try to solidify positions.

“Our forte and bread and butter is to play man coverage so [some of our players] were a little out of their element,” said Whittingham. “But we’re seeing progress with virtually every position.”