UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and player representative Star Lotulelei got quite defensive at Pac-12 Media Day — but in a good way.
Among the questions they fielded on the Gibson Amphitheatre stage at Pac-12 Media Day was an inquiry about the Utes' defense.
Utah led the conference in scoring defense (20.2 ppg), pass efficiency defense (116.5 rating), interceptions (19), opponent fourth-down conversions (26.3 percent), turnover margin (plus-10) and red-zone defense (75.7 percent) last season.
"We're as physical of a defense as you can find and that's our strong suit. We have hung our hat on that for plenty of years," Whittingham said while particularly noting Utah's success in defending the run. ". . . Physically, we match up with just about anybody in the country — especially on the line of scrimmage."
After noting the contributions of linebackers who like to hit and safeties helping with the run corners, the senior tackle backed Whittingham's statement about the Utah defense's ability to match up with anyone physically.
"I think we'll prove it this year," Lotulelei said.
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior is expected to be joined on the starting defensive line by tackle Dave Kruger (6-5, 300), as well as ends Nate Fakahafua (6-3, 250) and Joe Kruger (6-7, 280).
Interior reserves in the mix include juniors LT Tuipulotu (6-1, 303), Junior Salt (6-2, 330) and Tenny Palepoi (6-2, 305). On the outside, junior Thretton Palamo (6-2, 250), freshman Hunter Dimick (6-3, 261) and junior Niasi Leota (6-4, 278) open camp on the depth chart.
Although the Utes will have two new starters at linebacker, junior Trevor Reilly returns to give the group veteran leadership and experience. Sophomore V.J. Fehoko is the frontrunner at middle linebacker, while sophomore Jacoby Hale and redshirt freshman LT Filiaga are expected to battle it out at rover.
Free safety Eric Rowe, a Freshman All-American, headlines an athletic secondary that includes a pair of senior cornerbacks in Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee. Junior Quade Chappuis could open the season as the starter at strong safety in place of suspended junior Brian Blechen.
OFFENSE: The Brian Johnson era begins. The nation's youngest offensive coordinator takes charge at the ripe, old age of 25. He'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal and experienced ones at that. Nine returning starters include record-setting all-conference running back John White (1,519 yards rushing last season), quarterback Jordan Wynn, top receiver DeVonte Christopher and three offensive linemen.
DEFENSE: There's a big star in the trenches here. Lotulelei opted to put an NFL career on hold and return for his senior season. He was named the Pac-12's top defensive lineman (Morris Award) in 2011. Other returning starters include linemen Dave and Joe Kruger, cornerback Ryan Lacy and free safety Eric Rowe.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Everyone is back from a year ago — kicker Coleman Petersen, punter Sean Sellwood, snapper Patrick Greene, return specialists Christopher and Reggie Dunn, plus punt returner Charles Henderson and kickoff guy Nick Marsh.
PLAYMAKERS: White and Christopher are savvy seniors, go-to guys and big-play threats on offense. Sophomore receiver Dres Anderson is another guy to watch. On defense, Lotulelei and Reilly are often in the thick of things.
TOUGH STRETCH: An Oct. 4 home game on ESPN against projected national championship contender USC is surrounded by possible pitfalls — three road games, a trip to Arizona State beforehand and journeys to UCLA and Oregon State after the highly anticipated showdown.
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