Rebuilding a defense is never easy. Imagine, then, having your new defense face one of the best running backs in the country on opening night.
Such is the task facing Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake on Thursday, when the Utes host No. 15 Pittsburgh and powerful back Dion Lewis.
Utah lost seven starters, including all of its starting linebackers, rover and three defensive backs. Five of its top-six leading tacklers are gone.
“You wish you could have a lot more time as a coach, but the game is a test itself,” Sitake said in a phone interview. “We’ve got some young guys, but so does everybody else in the country. We’re sick of playing each other. We want to play against a good team, and we’re all excited to play.”
Sitake heaped generous amounts of praise on Lewis, who finished third in the country last season with 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns as a true freshman. This season, he has garnered Heisman buzz, and many of the high hopes for Pittsburgh rest with how he plays.
“We’ve gone against some good running backs here since I’ve been here, and I think he may be one of the best,” Sitake said. “He’s a Barry Sanders-type -- he’ll make you miss. He’s also got very powerful legs and he’ll lower the shoulder, a guy who has all the tools. I love the way he plays the game. We’re going to have to stop a monster and we know that.”
What should help Utah is the depth it has returning on the defensive line, even without Koa Misi, who was third on the team last year with 71 tackles. Tackles Dave Kruger and Sealver Siliga are all-conference candidates. Six players are expected to rotate in at tackle.
Defensive end Christian Cox led the team with 5.5 sacks last season in a mostly backup role, but he did start three games. Derrick Shelby returns from a knee injury.
“We have to take advantage of the depth we have there, but my main concern is taking Dion down and make sure he stays down,” Sitake said. “If you watch film, he breaks tons of tackles. Even when you think he’s down, he’ll break out of it and take a 4-yard run into an 80-yard touchdown.”
Linebacker is the biggest concern going into the season, with leading tackler Stevenson Sylvester gone along with much depth. JJ Williams, expected to start at rover, is a game-time decision with a foot injury. Sitake wasn’t sure whether linebacker Jamel King (concussion) would play. Former quarterback Chad Manis is slated to start at strongside linebacker. If Williams can’t play, Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker will start.
Meanwhile, cornerback Brandon Burton anchors a secondary that features a true freshman at strong safety -- 6-foot-2, 208-pound Brian Blechen, a former quarterback in high school.
“Brian’s very mature when it comes to football knowledge,” Sitake said. “He’s very aggressive and likes to hit. All of that put together is a good thing. But now it’s time to grow up and what better way to grow up than throwing him in the fire with a bunch of big, physical players in Pittsburgh.”
Though this group is young and inexperienced compared to last year, Sitake was pleased with what he saw through fall camp. But now it is time to find out how his players will respond to a huge test.
“We have a good idea on our kids, but we’ll find out Thursday,” Sitake said.