SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Perhaps the biggest reason why there is much optimism around the Utah football program this year is the defense.
Always a consistent force, this year’s Utah defense could be one of the best units in the country, and is a huge factor in why the Utes were picked to win the Pac-12 championship.
The placed four players on the preseason All-Pac-12 first team, led by their dominant defensive line.
Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, Maxs Tupai, John Penisini and Pita Tonga anchor what could be one of the best lines head coach Kyle Whittingham has ever had.
“It could be,” Whittingham said at Pac-12 Media Day. “With this defensive line we’ve got coming in with those three seniors that headline it. Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini are tremendous players, and we’re surrounding those guys with six or seven other underclassmen that we feel are very talented. On paper, it could very well be as good a defensive line, if not the best, that we’ve ever had. But you’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
Julian Blackmon moves from cornerback to safety where he’ll team with Terrell Burgess. Cornerback Javelin Guidry earned preseason All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors. But the best player in the secondary is Jaylon Johnson, who is expected to be a first round NFL Draft pick next year.
“Shutdown corner, that term gets thrown around pretty loosely,” Whittingham said. “There’s not very many of them, and he is one of them. So, that allows you to do so many things in coverage, roll the coverage away from him, man him up. There are just so many options when you have a guy like that.”
The biggest question on the defense is at linebacker, where the Utes lost Chase Hansen and Cody Barton to graduation. But with Penn State transfer Manny Bowen and BYU transfer Francis Bernard expected to start, the Utes still have plenty of playmakers.
“They were great players for us and great leaders for us,” Whittingham said about Hansen and Barton, who was a 3rd round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks. “But we feel like we have a chance to be pretty good there again this year with Manny Bowen and Francis Bernard, both of them transfers into the program. So we think between those two guys and Devin Lloyd, who has been in the program this will be his third year now, we’ve got a good nucleus to start with at that linebacker spot.”
The Utes open training camp on Wednesday, with the season opener set for August 29th at BYU.