SALT LAKE CITY — For a long time the Utah football program has been best known for its development of defensive linemen. However, the past few years you could call it Defensive Back U. for its development of defensive backs, particularly cornerbacks for the NFL.
Right now there are seven former Ute defensive backs playing in the NFL, from all-pro Eric Weddle, who joined the San Diego Chargers in 2007, to Moe Lee, who is still with the Baltimore Ravens after starting for the Utes last season.
Other ex-Utah DBs in the NFL include Brandon Burton (2011, Minnesota), Robert Johnson (2010, Tennessee), R.J. Stanford (2010, Miami), Brice McCain (2009, Houston) and Sean Smith (2009, Miami). All but Johnson and Weddle are cornerbacks.
To Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah — a former Ute defensive back himself — it’s no secret why the Utes have been churning out NFL defensive back prospects over the past few years.
“We play man coverage and put our corners in the exact same position as the NFL puts their corners in,’’ Shah said. “We stress that — that you have to be able to play best on best. Skill on skill is the term that we use and because we are a very aggressive man coverage team.’’
This year, Shah and the Utes face an especially daunting challenge with a group of cornerbacks devoid of experience. Lee, Ryan Lacy and Reggie Topps, who played a lot of snaps as the nickelback, have graduated (Lacy and Topps both got looks at NFL camps), leaving the Utes with the task of breaking in a new group of cornerbacks.
“We have a lot of guys, but no experience, which is a tough situation, given as much man coverage as we play,’’ Shah says. “No question we have talent, but with no experience, the learning curve is very high. I’m looking for some of these guys to break out and really separate themselves over the next few days.’’
Shah says no starting positions have been solidified yet, but lists six players who are ahead of the pack as camp heads into its second week.
Keith McGill, who came to Utah as a safety and played five games in 2011 before getting injured and also sitting out last year, is the most-talked about of the corner crew. Since being switched to corner, he has dropped 20 pounds already in an effort to improve his speed and quickness. He’s down from 225 pounds as a safety to 205 pounds and coach Kyle Whittingham would like him to get under 200 pounds before the season begins.
Others who are in the running for the starting cornerback slots are Justin Thomas, a redshirt freshman from Orange, Texas; Reggie Porter, a redshirt freshman from Louisiana; Wykie Freeman, a junior from Texas; Damian Orphey, a JC transfer from Santa Ana College; and Hipolito Corporan, a true freshman from Houston. Freeman is coming off an ACL injury.
With so many young players, Shah is nervous about his backs being ready by the time the season starts Aug. 29 against Utah State. He says with man coverage, “Mistakes are absolutely magnified and everybody sees them at corner. We want to keep those to a minimum with no deep balls.’’
However, he believes players will come forward this fall and keep the tradition of top Utah cornerbacks going.
“I think it’s the history of what we do,’’ Shah said. “We put a lot on them and some people shrink from it and some people grow from it. We teach them how to be fundamentally sound with correct technique and that transfers over from team to team and game to game.’’
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