Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen isn't worrying about filling his team's starting vacancies at tackle, linebacker and safety.

"I like this team. We've got a lot of returnees and I like the way they compete," Andersen said as the Utes prepare to open camp. "We're excited to get them out on the field on Monday and get things started."

Players report today for a team meeting. Practices begin with split sessions Monday and Tuesday.

"We're ready to go," said head coach Kyle Whittingham, who is entering his fourth season at the helm.

The Utes, who open the season Aug. 30 at Michigan, return eight starters on offense and six on defense. With nearly half of the latter departed from a squad that led the nation in pass efficiency defense and ranked fifth in scoring defense, several new faces will move into the starting lineup.

Fortunately for Utah, there's plenty of experience to fill in the gaps.

At tackle, Andersen said the Utes will use three players to fill the two starting spots. Junior Kenape Eliapo, senior Greg Newman and sophomore Lei Talamaivao, he explained, enter camp with no separation whatsoever.

"We expect those kids on the defensive line to perform at a very high level and they will," Andersen said. "They'll be in there, and they'll be ready to roll."

The starters will be backed by a talented group that includes senior Aaron Tonga, as well as true freshmen Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger.

"I feel much better about the defensive tackle position than I did a year ago — right now," said Andersen, who cited depth and the players in the system for his evaluation.

Linebacker is another position where the Utes are seeking two new starters. Barring a surprise in camp, however, the spots are already filled. Junior Stevenson Sylvester is back at rover with sophomore Nai Fotu manning the stud spot and junior Mike Wright taking over in the middle.

The real competition, Andersen added, will be for the No. 2 positions where several players are expected to battle for playing time. The candidates include juniors Kepa Gaison and Lisi Leota, sophomore Matt Martinez and freshmen Mo Neal and Chaz Walker.

A tight battle is also expected at strong safety, where the coaching staff seeks a replacement for tackles leader Steve Tate. Junior Joe Dale will try to fend off seniors Deshawn Richard and R.J. Rice for the top spot.

The Utes, Andersen acknowledged, have the opportunity to have a very good defense again.

"The biggest issue, I would say, is making sure we stay healthy," he said. "It's always a major concern. It's going to be a major concern forever."

Avoiding injuries is something Utah's offense can appreciate. Quarterback Brian Johnson, wide receiver Brent Casteel (both seniors) and junior running back Matt Asiata enter camp healthy after battling injuries last season.

Asiata and senior Darrell Mack are expected to give the Utes a quality 1-2 punch running the ball. They're expected to have a spirited competition in camp for the starting job.

Same goes for center, where sophomore Zane Taylor and junior Tyler Williams are competing to top the depth chart.

The tight end position is also intriguing. With junior college transfer Dudley LaPorte not expected to enroll until January, senior Colt Sampson, junior Chris Joppru and sophomore Brad Clifford can capitalize on the situation. They'll compete with converted offensive guard Neli A'asa, a sophomore, for playing time. A'asa caught a 41-yard pass from Louie Sakoda on a fake punt against Wyoming last season.

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham confirmed that highly touted receivers David Reed and Aiona Key are expected to be in camp. The junior college transfers had academic work to complete. Reed is in town and will likely practice Monday. Key is expected to join the mix early next week. ... All of Utah's fall practices and scrimmages will be closed to the public. ... Single-game tickets for Utah's home dates against UNLV, TCU, Oregon State and Colorado State go on sale Monday morning. ... The Newark Star Ledger reports that former Ute Brett Ratliff has been "the most impressive quarterback" at the New York Jets' training camp.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com