SALT LAKE CITY — Finding four new starters in the secondary was Utah's biggest task on defense. Key word: was.
An abundance of talent, albeit young talent, has filled the depth chart at both safety and cornerback. They'll back an established front seven for the Utes.
Ryan Lacy and Conroy Black established themselves as the starting cornerbacks in spring ball, filling spots vacated by the graduation of Lamar Chapman and Brandon Burton's early departure to the NFL.
Lacy, a 5-foot-9, 187-pound junior with 4.32 speed, will man the left side and likely be backed by sophomore Wykie Freeman. Black, a 6-foot, 186-pound senior with 4.35 speed, is ticketed for the right side. The junior college transfer appeared in all 13 games last season as a reserve, making 19 tackles with three pass breakups and an interception. Black's primary backup will likely be junior Mo Lee, a converted receiver.
Junior Reggie Topps and sophomore Mike Honeycutt are competing for the nickel spot. Sub-package positions, including the dime, were still being contested as camp concluded.
When camp opened, safety was a concern.
Brian Blechen's move to linebacker and the graduation of Justin Taplin-Ross put both starting jobs up for grabs. And newcomers grabbed them.
Highly touted junior college transfer Keith McGill is the frontrunner at free safety, while true freshman Eric Rowe and sophomore Michael Walker are both expected to see time at strong safety. Rowe, in fact, will also be in the rotation with McGill at the other spot.
"A position that was a big question mark now appears to be — maybe even — a positive for us," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "So we'll see how it progresses."
Their rapid development, he added, has been a pleasant surprise.
As for linebacker, the Utes appear to be loaded with returning starters Chaz Walker (113 tackles) and Matt Martinez (91 tackles) back for their senior seasons. The talented duo have been elected as team captains. The projected starters are expected to be joined by Blechen (67 tackles). After earning Freshman All-America honors at strong safety, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore has been moved to stud linebacker as his body evolves into the position. The move puts last season's top three tacklers on the field together at linebacker.
There's an abundance of depth at the position where senior J.J. Williams, a former starter, is back after battling a foot injury that limited him to two games last season. He had 75 tackles over two previous seasons — one before he served an LDS Church mission to the West Indies and one after. Williams could back Martinez at rover.
There is also keen competition at middle linebacker, where freshman V.J. Fehoko and junior Boo Andersen are backing Walker.
"We have a lot of bodies on defense, a lot of capable bodies," Whittingham said.
Seniority, he added, won't dictate playing time.
"It's a situation where we assess athletic ability and it doesn't matter if you've been here five years or five days. The best guy is going to play," Whittingham said. "That's how it is. We're paid to put the best product on the field that we can and that's what we're going to do."
The linebackers and secondary back a deep defensive line that Whittingham has repeatedly said is the strength of not just the defense, but the team as a whole.
"Our defensive line should be among the best in the Pac-12 this season," he noted in Utah's 2011 outlook.
Chaz Walker, senior linebacker, is Utah's man in the middle and was the team's leading tackler last season with 113 stops (35 unassisted). The former walk-on from Davis High School is on the preseason watch list for the Rotary Lombardi Award. Walker was chosen to be a captain by his teammates.