Utes defense needs playmaking

Utah's defense wasn't bad last year, particularly when you consider it was supported by an anemic offense. But there was a decided lack of big plays that transferred momentum to the team in red.

Here are two telling measures.

  • Utah forced just 22 turnovers. That ranked 10th in the conference. Six Pac-12 teams forced more than 30.

  • Opposing offenses scored touchdowns on 31 of 43 red zone trips -- 72 percent. The only conference team that was worse was woeful Colorado.

The loose correlation there? Playmaking. Who's going to make the play that stops a drive short of the end zone?

"We have to make those few plays that win you games," Utes defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. "That's the difference between an 8-4 year and a 5-7 year. We didn't make enough of those big-time plays."

Overall, the Utes were pretty middling on defense in 2012, even with massive defensive tackle Star Lotulelei gobbling up blockers. They ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (25.1 points per game) and fifth in total defense (363.5 yards per game). They were still strong against the run, ranking second in the conference. But the end result was lagging.

What Sitake realized is the Pac-12 had something to do with that. In their second year after making the move up from the Mountain West, the Utes saw an injury bug slow down starters and hit their depth. Banged up guys playing more plays than they should is not good anytime but particularly against up-tempo offenses.

"You can't just have just 11 starters anymore with everyone doing these uptempo offenses," Sitake said. "Your twos have to be as good as your ones because they are going to play a lot of snaps."

Utah is still catching up with the rest of the Pac-12 when it comes to top-to-bottom depth.

Further, two of Sitake's top playmakers, defensive end Trevor Reilly and linebacker Brian Blechen, didn't have the seasons they'd hoped for due to nagging injuries, not to mention Blechen's three-game suspension. Reilly hobbled around on a bum knee the entire season, though he still ended up leading the team in tackles.

The good news is both are now healthy. Blechen is back at linebacker and back to 230 pounds. Reilly will be at defensive end instead of outside linebacker.

The questions are at linebacker and cornerback, positions where fall competition should be fierce.

Replacing Star? Not possible but also not a pressing problem.

"You can't replace him," Sitake said. "But we've always had reliable, strong D-tackles. There's never been a shortage of that at Utah."

Sitake is high on JC transfer Sese Ianu, who likely will rotate at tackle with LT Tuipulotu and Tenny Palepoi.

Blechen will lead the linebackers, but the other two spots aren't filled, as LT Filiaga is listed as an "Or" behind V.J. Fehoko and Jared Norris at both middle and rover linebacker, respectively.

In the secondary, things are solid at safety, but the top three cornerbacks from 2012 need to be replaced.

Sitake is optimistic he'll find some answers this fall. But his big-picture hopes aren't focused on specific positions.

"I'd like to see our depth get better," he said. "I'd like for us to remain healthy."

And he'd like to see a few more game-changing plays.