Within the framework of team play there's a healthy individual competition at the University of Utah.

It involves the defense, where a tight battle is developing when it comes to tackles.

Safety Joe Dale is the current leader of the pack. He's made 23 stops through four games. Linebackers Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright are in close pursuit with 22 tackles. Defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Koa Misi are also in the mix with 19. Then there's linebacker Kepa Gaison (16) and safety Robert Johnson (15).

All are within striking distance of a coveted title — team tackles leader.

"We're all going to compete for that spot. We all want that," said Wright, the defending champion. "But it's a team game. We'll be excited for whoever ends up on top."

This year's competition is particularly tight. Since Kyle Whittingham became the head coach in 2005, the team's eventual tackles leader has done so by eight or more stops by season's end.

The tightest battle was last season when Wright edged Sylvester by an 81-73 margin. Prior to that, Steve Tate was the top tackler for two consecutive years — topping his nearest teammate by 17 tackles in 2007 and 10 in 2006. In Whittingham's first season at the helm, linebacker Spencer Toone had 14 more than his nearest challenger.

"I'm not sure that's a factor one way or the other. Some years we've had a guy or two who are head and shoulders above everyone else in total tackles and some years it's evenly distributed like it seems to be this year," Whittingham said. "The net result is how we're doing as a team defensively."

And the Utes, he added, are coming off their best performance of the season in a 30-14 win over Louisville on Sept. 26. They had very few mental mistakes while playing overall assignment-sound football.

No one had more than seven tackles and 12 players had three or more.

"Having looked at that through the years I can't say you're better off having a couple of guys lead the way or if you're better off having it balanced," Whittingham said. "I think the end result is all you look at."

Entering Saturday's Mountain West Conference opener at Colorado State, the Utes' defense is making strides. They're currently ranked second in the league in pass defense (159.8 ypg) and third in total defense (294.8 ypg) and scoring defense (19 ppg).

On a national scale, Utah leads the country in third-down stops. Opponents are converting just 19.2 percent of the time.

Contributions have been widespread.

"We're out there as a team. We're rooting each other on," Wright said. "When someone makes a big play we're happy for him. We're excited. We're out there trying to make big plays."

Even so, there's an underlying competition to win the individual tackles title.

"We look at it and we keep track. We know where everyone's at as far as tackles go," said Wright, who emphasized that individual accolades are secondary to team success. "... Whoever ends up being the tackles leader at the end of the season, good for him."

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com

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