SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is quietly growing into a defensive back factory of sorts with the Utes continuing to send cornerbacks and safeties to the NFL with regularity, including four off the 2016 roster.
The program has work to do to replace those four starters from last season, but coach Kyle Whittingham is confident in the next wave of DBs.
“I think we’re going to be as good or better in the secondary than we were last year,” Whittingham said, “as soon as this group settles in and the learning curve expires.”
That would be a feat as Utah leads the Pac-12 with 52 interceptions over the last three seasons.
The Utes currently have at least 10 defensive backs in NFL training camps and all but four-time Pro Bowler Eric Weddle (Ravens), Sean Smith (Raiders) and Brice McCain (Titans) have entered since the 2013 season. The group also includes Keith McGill (Raiders), Jason Thompson (Patriots), Eric Rowe (Patriots), 2017 second-round pick Marcus Williams (Saints), 2017 fifth-round pick Brian Allen (Steelers) and 2017 undrafted free agents Dominique Hatfield (Rams) and Reggie Porter (Ravens).
— Kyle Whittingham (@UtahCoachWhitt) July 29, 2017
More traditional college powers may have better numbers, but Utah is proud of its trend as the program grows, including having a school-record eight players drafted in April.
Junior safety Chase Hansen (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), out indefinitely due to an undisclosed injury, is likely to be the next Utah defensive back playing on Sundays after leading the team with 90 tackles and earning an All-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2016.
When healthy, he’ll be paired with junior-college transfer Corrion Ballard (6-3, 205) at safety. Defensive coaches are also already singing the praises of freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson (6-0, 181).
The cornerback position is deeper with senior Boobie Hobbs (5-10, 180), sophomore Julian Blackmon (6-1, 187), junior Casey Hughes (5-11, 185) and freshman Nygel King (6-0, 181). Safety may not have that depth, but there’s optimism surrounding sophomore Philip Afia (6-1, 195) and junior Marquise Blair (6-2, 185).
“We see things that we hadn’t seen from our other kids last year in terms of physicality, raw athleticism, acceleration,” cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said. “Kids can flat out run. We were good last year, but we gave up too many deep balls. It was sickening. …
“A lot of youth breeds a lot of competition. You’re getting a better athlete to join the program because of the prior success that we’ve had on the field and in the NFL.”
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said recruiting is the key to avoiding a drop-off after losing so many starters in the defensive backfield, but that’s easier said than done. Utah has only been in the Pac-12 since 2011 and still doesn’t have the cachet of more traditional powers around the country.
Scalley is looking for speed, athleticism and physicality in recruits and good football intelligence from the safeties. He thinks athletes are noticing the stream to the NFL.
“We’ve got to be able to use that to our advantage,” Scalley said. “In the recruiting game, we do. We sell that. … The biggest selling point is the guys that have moved on — the Brice McCains, the Sean Smiths, the Eric Weddles. The guys that are playing in the league year after year.”
The Utah defense continues to live by the mantra: Four and a Score. That’s the weekly goal of four turnovers and scoring off one of them.
The defense has led the program’s development into Pac-12 contenders and the media picked the Utes to finished second behind USC in the South Division.
“We know what’s at stake,” Hobbs said. “We just want to come out and compete to the highest level. We pride ourselves in being very underrated (among) Power 5 schools. So, that gives us some energy to be the best we can be.”
The defensive backfield began camp as one of the biggest question marks on the roster. The defense will be simplified, somewhat, with so many new faces. Technique and fundamentals will be emphasized more.
Whittingham thinks the questions may have been answered early on in camp.
“That position has really been rebuilt and supplemented over the last few years,” Whittingham said. “Short on experience, long on talent.”
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