We took a way too early look at the 2018 Utah Utes offense earlier, now let’s switch our focus to the other side of the ball and look at the defense. We will breakdown each level of the defense and project whether they will be better, uncertain, or possibly take a step back.
Defensive Line - Possible Step Back
This is a group that you could argue underachieved in 2017 (as Shane did in his article on defensive MVP). The defensive line featured three seniors returning in Kylie Fitts, Filipo Mokofisi, and Lowell Lotulelei. Injuries, especially to Fitts, did negatively impact this group, and there were times when the group looked dominant in 2017. In 2017, Utah allowed 4.00 yards per carry, their worst mark since joining the Pac-12, and the 131.31 yards per game that Utah gave up was the second-worst mark since joining the Pac-12 (only in 2014 did they give up more rushing yards per game with 146.85). Utah’s 25 sacks in 2017 was also their lowest total as a Pac-12 team. So, why did we talk so much about 2017 in a way to early look at 2018? Well, it is because it is important to note where Utah was last year and what they lost coming into this year. They were a deep, experienced group last year, but that did not translate to the type of success we all expected the group to have before the season started. Utah loses three starters up front, and they were the leaders of the group as mentioned earlier. The good news is defensive end Bradlee Anae, who led the team in sacks, will be back next year for his junior season. This was a deep group last year, and a lot of younger players like Leki Fotu, Chris Hart, John Penisini, and Caleb Repp among others saw a lot of playing time. That experience will be hugely beneficial for those players coming into 2018. Utah also brought in junior college player Jeremiah Jordan, who is an early enrollee. This is a group that will have a lot of guys who will contribute and play well, but I just cannot predict this group to be better in 2018 right now given the fact that they lose three starters the caliber of Fitts, Mokofisi, and Lotulelei.
Linebacker - Uncertain
I wish I had a better read on this group, but I do not. We will delve into why that is now. This group featured the two leading tacklers for the Utah football team last year in Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli. This was another group hit with the injury bug last season that contributed to a season that did not quite live up to lofty preseason expectations. The group had two seniors who finished 2016 strong and a bevy of younger players behind them that saw a lot of meaningful playing time in 2016, but they had games where they struggled (Oregon being one that stands out in my mind when the Ducks ran for over seven yards per carry). The two main contributors from the group are gone, so that might make you think this group will take a step back. Luafatasaga and Tauteoli are both good players when healthy, but I was excited with what I saw behind them. Donavan Thompson showed promise when he was on the field. Cody Barton might not have the physical gifts of some other players, but he works and played incredibly hard and had some nice games to finish the season. Junior college linebacker Bryant Pirtle, Jr. will be counted on to step into the pass rushing linebacker role that is key in Utah’s defense that Luafatasaga played last year.
Secondary - Better
The one group lacking in experience was the one group that exceeded expectations this season. Junior Chase Hansen was the only returning starter in the back end from a unit that sent three players to the NFL, and senior Boobie Hobbs was the only other player with a lot of experience. New starters Corrion Ballard, Julian Blackmon, who was second-team All-Pac-12, Marquise Blair, Javelin Guidry, and Jaylon Johnson were all excellent. Blair is one the most physical defensive backs I have seen in college football recently. Guidry and Johnson both saw a ton of playing time and played well despite being true freshmen that arrived on campus in fall camp (as did Blair who was a former JUCO prospect). This group was young last year, and almost everyone is back (though they will miss Casey Hughes, who transferred to Michigan). They played really well despite essentially four new starters. The ceiling on this group in 2018 is high, and I expect Utah to feature one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12.
One thing that was not touched on in the main body of the article was the hiring of Gary Andersen as Utah’s 10th assistant coach. Having him back on the Utah sideline is huge. His wealth of knowledge and Pac-12 coaching experience will be beneficial to Utah when developing game plans to stop all of the high powered offenses Utah is likely to see in 2018 in the Pac-12. Our colleague Bill C, who is the inventor of S&P+ has found that returning experience in the defensive backfield is the most predictive for overall defensive success, which bodes well for a Utah team that brings back so much talent in the secondary.