After leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2011, Utah has slipped into the middle of the pack in the conference the past two seasons. While the numbers have been generally solid -- most notably against the run -- you get the feeling that coordinator Kalani Sitake isn't happy with being fair-to-middling.
The Utes entered spring needing to replace some key guys, most notably outside linebacker Trevor Reilly, who was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2013, DT Tenny Palepoi, who earned second-team honors, and cornerback Keith McGill, who is expected to be picked in the NFL draft in May. It also didn't help the cause when playmaker Jacoby Hale blew out his knee in March.
Still, the Utes have some intrigue talent returning on defense, as well as some notable newcomers.
So, with the Utes' spring game scheduled for Saturday, it seemed like a good time to check in with Sitake, a guy who has generated some buzz as a future head coaching candidate.
First let's look back: What was good about the 2013 defense, and what were you unhappy about?
Kalani Sitake: The good part is we had some good play out of our defensive front. We've been solid in run defense for years now. I think the passing game was a little bit spotty at times, not the best. But the thing that was most negative was the lack of turnovers, specifically interceptions. We had three interceptions. In 2011, we led the Pac-12 in interceptions [with 19]. All of the sudden it dwindled to where we were last last year. Not that we didn't have opportunities, we just need to capitalize on opportunities. Three interceptions can't do it. So there's been a huge emphasis this spring on finishing plays and capitalizing on our opportunities. That was a huge, glaring negative for us last season.
With the spring game on Saturday, give me an overall assessment of where your defense is right now.
Kalani Sitake: We have some guys who are banged up, specifically at D-tackle, who haven't been participating. We also are counting on a few guys who have done some good things this spring. I think Eric Rowe and Reggie Porter, our cornerbacks, our defensive backfield of Davion Orphey and Justin Thomas -- I'm naming those guys as corners -- they have really improved. We seen really good things from them. I feel more comfortable with that position now than I did earlier. I think our safeties, with Brian Blechen playing there and as soon as Tevin Carter gets healthy, I think we'll see our safeties start to come along. We're going to be a lot deeper when we get some of these newcomers, Tevin Carter specifically, coming in. I think our defense as a whole got better. I think we are a lot more set. Going through some of the issues we had last year, a lot of guys are more experienced. It wasn't the best defense statistically for us, but the experience a lot of these young guys went through is going to pay off huge for us this fall. Going through the grind of the Pac-12 conference has been good for these guys.
Who replaces OLB Trevor Reilly's production?
Kalani Sitake: We did some things with Nate Orchard and we think he's going to be that guy. Probably not as much at inside linebacker as Trevor played. You'll see Nate doing a lot of what Trevor did last year. He's in his senior year. He's had a great spring, though we held him out of a lot of the scrimmage stuff. He's our big-play guy up front. I see him now as our leader. He's really starting to come into his own, which is perfect timing for us, especially with us replacing Trevor Reilly. Nate Orchard is the next guy in and I think he'll do a great job at it.
What does it mean to have S/LB Brian Blechen back and how will you guys use him this fall?
Kalani Sitake: It's huge because he has more interceptions than any of the defensive backs who are returning. He won games for us as a true freshman with interceptions. The main thing for us is he is a big-play guy. Having a big play guy at safety is valuable for us, specifically when we need turnovers, interceptions. Whether he causes a fumble, makes a big hit or gets an interception, just to have the impact he has. We'd like to keep him at safety but with his versatility and him knowing football so well and knowing our defense, he can play any of the spots on our defense. Having a guy that gives you those options is a huge benefit and huge asset for us defensively.
Let's go through all three levels. First, your defensive line: Who's had a good spring up front?
Kalani Sitake: Up front, I saw some good things out of Hunter Dimick and Jason Fanaika, playing D-end. Jason can also play inside at D-tackle. Same with Hunter. Viliseni Fauonuku has had a great spring. He was banged up a little bit but came back. He's the explosive defensive lineman we need at D-tackle. Pita Taumoepenu has proven that he's a good pass rusher. We're going to need him. As a true freshman last year, he wasn't ready to be an every-down guy. This next little bit in fall camp, I'd like to see him develop into an every-down type of D-end. A little bit undersized [6-foot-1, 230 pounds], but we've had guys we've had to add weight on before. Nate Orchard used to be that guy his freshman, sophomore year. We have some guys up front who are doing some really good things. I'll be excited to get some of our D-tackles back healthy -- Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Sese Ianu -- and we're getting Star Lotulelei's little brother, Lowell, in the fall. And then there's Sam Tevi. So there's four D-tackles who haven't participated in spring. And Filipo Mokofisi will be huge for us up front, too. We also have a [junior college] transfer from Snow College, Pasoni Tasini, who will be huge for us. Defensive tackle-wise, I'm excited about those guys. I think the front is going to be a strength for us.
And at linebacker?
Kalani Sitake: We had those unfortunate injuries with Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul, but Gionni Paul will be back for us for fall camp and for the season. With Hale, it's as soon as we can get him back from his ACL, we'll take him. That's part of football. The great part of it is we've got some depth. We'll get Jason Whittingham back in the fall. Jared Norris has emerged as dynamic at linebacker for us. He can do anything. He can play inside or outside. He's got what it takes. I see, as far as last year to this year, he's made a huge improvement, his speed and agility. I'm excited to see what he can do this fall. Uaea Masina will be a solid linebacker for us this fall. We moved Marcus Sanders-Williams from running back to linebacker after those two injuries, and for a guy who's only been a linebacker for a week ... his second day of being a linebacker was our scrimmage, and he graded out higher than I've had a newcomer grade out. He understands defense and made a ton of big plays. For a guy who's got a lot of speed, I'm excited about him at linebacker. Those guys have done some really good things who we will be relying on this fall.
And in the secondary?
Kalani Sitake: Overall, Eric Rowe, we can play him at free safety, but we feel like Tevin Carter can be a guy, so we've got Tevin Carter and Brian Blechen at safety. We feel good with those guys. I also feel good with Charles Henderson backing up the safety position. A couple of these freshmen coming in should be able to help us out. We also moved Hipolito Corporan from corner to safety. Those guys will give us a solid group at free safety and strong safety. Eric Rowe can be a swing guy from corner to safety, but we feel really comfortable with him replacing Keith McGill and being a big corner for us. Reggie Porter will join him at a corner spot with Justin Thomas as our nickel corner. You also have Davion Orphey who started for us last year at corner. We feel really solid about those four corners right there. And Wykie Freeman is a guy that also gives us a corner we feel good about. We'll see how the young guys come along. We feel really good about our five corners, and Eric Rowe has been dynamic for us.
I know you coach defense, but folks are curious about QB Travis Wilson and his health. How has he looked this spring?
Kalani Sitake: He's a lot lighter now and he's actually caused problems for us scrambling around. He's going against the first-team defense every day and he's looking a lot quicker. He's more comfortable the more he plays. I've been really impressed with some of the things he's done. I think he's back to himself. He's taking on leadership roles with the team. It will be really exciting to see what he can do this fall. Losing the weight, he's a lot more elusive for a 6-foot-7 guy -- I think that's working for him. He can make guys miss and run around and beat guys to the edge. I see him doing some really good things. He's older and feels more comfortable, even though it's a new offensive system.