As long as we can stay healthy we'll have a pretty strong group. —Safeties coach Morgan Scalley
SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past decade, the University of Utah football team has fielded a strong defensive backfield most years with a boatload of players making it to the NFL, including Eric Weddle, Sean Smith, Brice McCain, R.J. Stanford, Robert Johnson, Brandon Burton and Conroy Black.
Who knows if any of the current defensive backs will make the pros someday, but the Utes have another strong group of players in the secondary this year that challenges those of the past.
The two cornerbacks are seniors — Ryan Lacy, who started all 13 games and was all-Pac-12 honorable mention, and Mo Lee, who started three games, including the Sun Bowl and was eighth in the Pac-12 in interceptions last year with three picks.
The safeties are younger, but in Eric Rowe, the Utes have a budding star who was a freshman all-American as a true freshman last year and Brian Blechen, a two-year starter and former freshman all-American, who must sit out the first three games for a violation of team rules. In the meantime, junior Quade Chappuis will fill in and likely see a lot of action throughout the season.
Both defensive backfield coaches, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah and safeties coach Morgan Scalley, are enthusiastic about their respective players and believe there is plenty of depth behind the projected starters.
"We have a lot of competition in this group and that's what I love because everybody's trying to separate themselves and there's no clear person or group of starters," Shah says. "I change rotations frequently based on how people play."
However, the first-year Ute coach says that Lacy and Lee have been the most consistent in fall camp and will likely be the starters against Northern Colorado.
Shah says with so many experienced players, the Ute cornerbacks are ahead of schedule, a week before the first game.
"We're on track in terms of what our more experienced guys are able to digest," he said. "We're able to put a lot more on them in terms of coverages, schemes and modifications. About 95 percent of what we will run has been installed. So that's a luxury when we have such a seasoned cornerback core group. Now it's a matter of refining it before game day."
Lacy came to Utah in 2009 and was immediately switched from receiver to cornerback. He learned from the likes of Stanford and Burton and entrenched himself as the starter last year.
"What makes him a very good cornerback are his feet and eyes," says Shah. "He has excellent anticipatory skills and also has the speed, feet, hips and very cat-like quickness."
Like Lacy, Lee arrived at Utah as a receiver, coming up from Palomar College in California where he had ventured to from Miami, Fla. At 6-foot-1, he's taller than your average cornerback.
"Being a former receiver he has a real good feel for when the ball is coming out," Shah says. "Mo has a knack to get up the field and turn around. He's already breaking and closing on the man and his eyes are looking for the ball."
Besides Lacy and Lee, Shah is excited about sophomore Wykie Freeman, who has a chance to start at nickelback, senior Lewis Walker, junior Mike Honeycutt, sophomore Joe Smith, freshman Tyler White and Reggie Topps, an experienced senior who is returning from a suspension.
The most experienced player in the secondary is Blechen, who started at safety as a freshman and the second half of last season after beginning the season at linebacker. However, he won't see the field until the Arizona State game on Sept. 22, although he has been practicing with the team.
That leaves Rowe as the most experienced safety for now and big things are expected of him after he started all 13 games as a freshman and finished as the team's fourth-leading tackler from his free safety position.
"Eric obviously had a great freshman year last year and is ready to hopefully have a very good sophomore season for us," said Scalley. "Last year his sole focus was alignment assignment football and now he's gotten to the point where it's second nature to him. He's focusing more on how to disguise coverages, how to fool the quarterback and what you're going to get out of certain formations. He's improving his ball skills with a lot more plays on the ball and we expect a lot more interceptions."
Besides Chappuis, others who will see time at safety include sophomore Terrell Reese, junior Michael Walker and sophomore Tyron Morris-Edwards.
"As long as we can stay healthy we'll have a pretty strong group," Scalley said.
Utes secondary at a glance
Eric Rowe, sophomore 6-1, 205 — Free safety started 13 games, 4th on the team with 69 tackles, named to four freshman all-American teams.
Brian Blechen, junior 6-2, 218 — Two-year starter for Utes at strong safety, third on team with 78 tackles in 2011 with three interceptions.
Quade Chappuis, junior 5-11, 198 — Former walk-on played in all 13 games in 2011 with one start, five tackles with interception against BYU.
Ryan Lacy, senior 5-9, 186 — Co-fastest player on the team (4.32 in 40), was honorable mention all-Pac-12 started all 13 games, 6th in league in passes defended.
Mo Lee, senior 6-1, 191 — Former wide receiver made three starts in 2012 and had three interceptions, including two in the Washington State win.