Utah's secondary wants to be second to none.
Armed with experience and speed, the Utes appear quite capable of leading the nation in pass-efficiency defense for the second consecutive year.
Returning defensive backs Brice McCain, Sean Smith, Robert Johnson, Joe Dale and R.J. Stanford lead the charge. McCain and Smith are the starting corners, while Johnson and Dale are the safeties. Stanford is the nickel back.
"They were a strength for us last year. There's no doubt," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "But every year is a new entity, and they've got to do it again. There's nothing they did last year that matters this year. They've got to go out and play the way they did last year."
It's a challenge the starters readily accept.
"It's always good to be No. 1. It's always good to have on your resume that you're No. 1, and we're going to feed off of that," said McCain, the lone senior in the group. "It's part of a bigger picture.
"If we're No. 1 again that means we're doing our job as a secondary again. So we want to do that, but not just pass efficiency. We want to be No. 1 in pass defense."
In addition, they would like to rank in the top 10 in all-around defense.
"We're pretty good. I'm not going to toot our own horn, but we're real special. We've got size, speed and athleticism. And we're pretty smart," Smith said. "We know what we're doing, and people like the front seven and what they're doing. That's one of our biggest assets.
"We're all going to be near the ball making plays because we're all competitors," he added.
Utah's defense is a partnership.
"Pass defense starts at the line of scrimmage with the pass rush," Whittingham said. "We did a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback last year, and the secondary did a good job in coverage. They work hand-in-hand."
It's the combination, he continued, that makes the Utes so good in pass coverage.
The secondary, however, has a special bond.
"I think our biggest asset is we all hang out. We're like real close. We go out there, and we understand what the other person is thinking," Smith explained. "We know our strengths and our weaknesses. It's cool to go out there and know you have friends with you."
Friendships have made last year's pass-efficiency statistical title even more meaningful. Smith joked that it's something the Utes should have won with all the man defense and technique they work on each day.
Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen considers man-free coverage the most difficult skill in football.
"Getting that honor was something special for us," Smith said.
"We're all great competitors and to go out there and dominate the opponent game after game, and to receive an honor like that is pretty special."
McCain predicts Utah will make a seamless transition without all-conference strong safety Steve Tate in the secondary. He'll be replaced as a full-time starter by Dale, who was the defensive MVP in last year's Poinsettia Bowl.
Smith pointed out that Tate did a great job sharing his wisdom with Dale and everyone else in the secondary over the last couple of years.
Now it's their turn to lead.
"I think they are a very, very tight group who have done a great job in camp," Andersen said. "They've come to work every single day in camp. I'm proud of that crew."
Johnson acknowledged that the starters in the secondary are a competitive group with a lot of talent. They all care about each other and are "all about winning."
It's an attitude they all appreciate."I'm glad to be part of this and be part of these guys' lives," McCain said. "They're a great group of guys."
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