Inexperience creates questions for usually tough Ute defense

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Experience is in short supply on the Utah defense as it prepares to head into the pandemic-shortened season.

The Utes return only two full-time starters – junior defensive end Mika Tafua and junior linebacker Devin Lloyd – from a unit that took the Pac-12 by storm a year ago. Last season, Utah finished in the top six nationally in total defense, scoring defense, and rushing defense.

A big focus in camp ahead of Utah’s season opener against Arizona on Nov. 7 is finding players who can fill the holes left behind by the nine starters from 2019 who graduated or left early for the NFL.

“It’s definitely more challenging than it has been in recent years but it’s nothing that can’t be done at the end of the day,” Lloyd said. “It’s something that we have to get done.”

It will be tough for the Utes not to take a step back from what they did defensively with a veteran-laden group. Utah led the Pac-12 in total defense, passing defense, rushing defense, scoring defense, red zone defense, first downs allowed, and third-down defense.

The Utes recorded the best statistical season by a conference team in the Pac-12 era in three defensive categories: total yards allowed per game (269.2), rushing yards allowed per game (81.8), and points allowed per game (15.0).

Utah is relying on raw talent to deliver immediate results this time around. The Utes are also counting on their few returning players with significant game experience to step into larger leadership roles.

Lloyd is one of those leaders. His teammates voted the junior a team captain in January, following a breakout sophomore campaign that saw him register a team-high 91 tackles. Coach Kyle Whittingham said Lloyd’s leadership will be critical to the growth of the entire defense.

“He’s a bigger, better version of himself this year and I expect a big year from him production-wise and leadership-wise,” Whittingham said.

R.J. Hubert and Vonte Davis are also taking on important leadership roles in a young secondary. Davis was the lone senior in the two-deep at the start of fall camp. Hubert, a junior, started in three games last season and registered 22 tackles. Both were named starters when preseason camp opened.

With six freshmen and two sophomores in the two-deep at safety, cornerback, and nickelback, Hubert and Davis are embracing the chance to lead vocally and by example.

“I feel like it is my duty and my responsibility to take those guys under my wing and help them out,” Hubert said. “Game experience is something that’s unique and they’ll all get the chance soon, but I feel like the things I can teach them in film, as we go through walkthroughs, or even just giving feedback and advice after they get their reps on the field, is something I can help out with right now.”

Finding five starting defensive backs with the right mix of talent and chemistry is a top priority. Whittingham said finding five starters in the secondary quickly, so they can get enough reps together to begin to develop chemistry, is as important as deciding on a starting quarterback to the Utes’ success.

“It’s much like the offensive line,” Whittingham said. “Those secondary guys got to work together and get a feel for each other.”

Utah dealt with the added wrinkle of an offseason controversy that threatened to impede efforts to reload. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley took a pay cut from $1.1 million to $525,000 after Scalley admitted to using a racial slur in a 2013 text message to a recruit. He is also no longer the designated head coach in waiting.

Scalley retained his job on Whittingham’s coaching staff and has focused on rebuilding trust with players and fellow coaches.

“I had a lot of open and honest conversations with our players and it’s been fantastic. I love my job. I love teaching and coaching,” said Scalley, who has coached at Utah since 2008 and played for the Utes from 2001 to 2004. “It’s been a blessing to be back with the players I love.”

Utah’s fellow coaches and players have embraced giving Scalley a chance to make amends as he enters his fifth season as defensive coordinator.

“We are just forging ahead. We’re putting it behind us,” Whittingham said. “We’ve all learned from it, particularly Morgan, from what transpired. We’re just going in a positive direction right now. Morgan has done a great job with how he’s handled it and the strides he’s made since the incident.”

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