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Utah spring practice preview: Linebackers and defensive backs

Published: Monday, March 18 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

Utah Utes defensive end V.J. Fehoko (7) celebrates a play  in Salt Lake City Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive end V.J. Fehoko (7) celebrates a play in Salt Lake City Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah looks to have a good mix of experienced players and talented up-and-comers at both the linebacker and defensive back positions this spring. The Utes look particularly strong at safety where they'll return starters Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen at the free and strong safety spots, respectively.

At linebacker Utah returns most of its contributors from last season, including starting middle linebacker VJ Fehoko (5-11, 225), who looks to reprise his role this season. He’ll likely be flanked by Jason Whittingham (6-2, 234) at Stud linebacker and either Jacoby Hale (6-0, 230) or ReShawn Hooker (6-0, 230) at rover.

Dan Sorensen is the managing editor of utezone.com and believes that Utah is due for some marked improvement overall at the linebacker position.

“Last year it was essentially a bunch of freshmen and sophomores playing, and now all those guys are back and should be a lot better with a year of good experience behind them,” Sorensen said. “It’s great that most thought (they) underperformed last year, but everyone should be better, and there’s 7-8 guys who will battle for spots this spring.”

Among those competing for spots include LT Filiaga (6-0, 250), who will compete with Fehoko at middle linebacker. Players such as Jared Norris (6-1, 230) and Uaea Masina (6-2, 215) will compete at either outside linebacker position.

“Masina was hurt for most of his senior year in high school, but is healthy and will participate in spring as a true freshman,” Sorensen said. “Coaches are very high on him and they’re also very high on Hooker, who played some last year and showed a lot of promise. Overall, linebacker is a group that has a lot of talent and should really push the expected starters this spring. It’s hard not to see this group improve their overall play from last year.”

As mentioned, Utah will utilize both of its returning safeties in Eric Rowe (6-1, 205) and Brian Blechen (6-2, 212).

“Rowe should improve a lot this year, and Blechen is obviously proven to be a great player maker,” Sorensen said. “Coaches could move Blechen to rover linebacker if they need to, but for now, he’ll play at strong safety and should be very good there for his senior season. Together, Rowe and Blechen will likely be leaders of the defense and should provide very good play.”

The list of backups who will be competing for spots include Tyron Morris-Edwards (6-1, 200), Charles Henderson (5-9, 185) and Quade Chappuis (5-11, 200).

“This will be the first chance Henderson has been able to compete at defensive back since switching from receiver, and Morris-Edward has a ton of upside, so coaches are excited about him,’ Sorensen said. “Overall, safety should be a strong position.”

At cornerback the Utes present a lot of talent but not a lot of experience, according to Sorensen. The players likely to get first looks at either cornerback spot include Keith McGill (6-3, 205), Justin Thomas (5-9, 173) and JUCO transfer Davion Orphey (6-0, 187).

“McGill has a big body and could develop into a Sean Smith-like player for the Utes if he continues to progress,” Sorensen said. “Thomas was a huge recruit out of high school and is as talented as anyone on the roster with his ability to play. He could really play a big impact, as could Orphey, who was a big recruit for Utah out of the junior college ranks.”

Others competing for spots include Reginald Porter (5-11, 190) and Joseph Smith (5-9, 179), among others.

“Smith needs to show more consistency, and Porter also has the talent to make a bid for a starting spot this spring,” Sorensen said. “Overall, it’s a young group that should be a lot better after spending some time in the program. Coaches will be looking for consistency and, if they continue to improve, should be a very productive unit along with the safeties.”

Email: bgurney@desnews.com Twitter: @BrandonCGurney

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