Joe Dale</I>

A game-saving interception and a career-high 12 tackles in Utah's 35-32 win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl brought safety Joe Dale into the spotlight. The sophomore was named the game's defensive MVP.

"It boosted my confidence a lot," he said. "It was good to know that my coaches and my teammates trusted in me for me to be out there. I was just happy I came through for them and made some plays."

Dale's humble demeanor, however, belies his play on the field. The former Texas prep star appeared

in all 13 games last season, starting three times and making 40 tackles.

"We were confident last year when Joe stepped in," said cornerback Brice McCain. "Whenever Joe is on the field, he's good enough and smart enough. I'm always confident with Joe. The team is always confident with Joe because he always makes plays when he's in."

Dale contributed to a secondary that helped Utah lead the nation in pass efficiency. Now he's the leading candidate to replace all-conference strong safety Steve Tate, who graduated, as a regular starter.

"Both of them are great players," McCain said. "I don't think we'll miss a step with Joe Dale. He's athletic."

Dale credits Tate for preparing him for the opportunity.

"I learned a lot from Tate when he was here. He taught me a lot about leadership, playing hard and working hard. It just carried over into my game and I try to do some of the things he did."

As such, a seamless transition is expected in the secondary. Tate is the only player to depart. McCain and Sean Smith return at the corners and Robert Johnson is back at free safety.

Johnson said Tate helped all of them understand the defense better and shared tips with each player. As such, he expects things to be smooth.

"Whoever is in the game will be good," Johnson said.

Key word: whoever.

"Joe is doing a nice job. In fact, we have three or four safeties back there that are doing a nice job," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They're competing."

As the first week of camp concludes, Johnson and Dale are in a competitive battle with Deshawn Richard and R.J. Rice for the safety positions. Senior Terrell Cole is also in the mix.

"Safety is a position we have a lot of depth at," Whittingham said.

The challenge is something Dale relishes.

"Competition is always good. Whatever we can do to better the team is great," Dale said. "We've got a lot of good safeties and I know whichever safety is on the field, it's going to be a great player."

Playing time has provided great motivation.

"You've always got to stay hungry at this level," he said. "You can't lose your edge at all. You've got to go into every offseason hungry."

It's an approach the entire secondary has adopted. Dale said leading the nation in pass-efficiency defense — something that Whittingham says requires a good pass rush as well — was a huge deal, even if they didn't get a lot of attention for it.

"We feel like we didn't get some of the recognition we deserved," he said. "But we're going to try to make some noise this year and get the recognition that we deserve."

And lots of it.

"This defense has a chance to do a lot of great things," Dale said. "I believe that there's no weakness on this defense and we've got a chance to be the No. 1 defense in the country."

Johnson admits winning the statistical category last year was big for the secondary, but this time around the entire defense is seeking such accolades.

McCain agreed.

"We always try to be No. 1," he said. "Not just in pass efficiency. No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in all-around defense. That's what our goal is."

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