Terrell Cole is expected to play a prominent role for 20th-ranked Utah in Saturday's game at Air Force.

Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said the senior safety has great range, instincts and "will come up and smack you when he gets the chance."

Sounds like just the guy to help slow the Falcons' ground-oriented attack.

Cole and junior Robert Johnson will likely share reps at free safety for the second consecutive week.

"We give the quarterbacks different looks," said Johnson. "If I'm out there it might be intimidating to throw it, and if T-Cole is out there it might be possible where he's scared to run. We both have different strengths."

Andersen acknowledged that Johnson's 6-foot-2 frame and athleticism make him a consistent threat in the post. He noted that Cole's strength is taking great angles.

"I just do what I've got to do," said Cole, who is 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds. "I've never really been scared to hit because it's football. I'm playing a contact sport. I just throw my body into it and play with no regards."

Cole is one of Utah's leading tacklers this season. He's made nine stops, including 1 1/2 for loss, and has a pass breakup. When Johnson injured his hamstring in the Michigan game, Cole stepped in as the starting free safety against UNLV.

"He's making the most of his opportunities," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's played well each time he's been called upon, and he'll have a big role this week."

It wasn't always that way.

Cole was Utah's dime back last season and saw limited action in all 13 games, recording 25 tackles. An offseason switch to safety got off to a rocky start when Cole injured his knee in spring ball. On the day he returned from the injury, he separated his shoulder.

As such, Cole sort of fell off the map.

"It motivated me. I wasn't on the depth chart. I wasn't on the video game," said Cole. "People were like 'Where are you at?' That's what my friends asked me."

Cole didn't really have an answer. All he had was a determination to make the most of his opportunities and play hard every play.

"He wasn't always in the mix. The thing that Terrell has done over the offseason is he's just come with a different attitude. He was frustrated coming into spring. He was frustrated that he was low on the depth chart," said safeties coach Morgan Scalley.

"No one's given anything and the thing that Terrell finally figured out is that you come to practice with the right attitude. You grind through it, you prove yourself and do things the right way off the field. That's when good things happen."

Scalley added that Cole's attitude has been great since the summer. He's worked hard and has become a consistent playmaker.

"I'm never satisfied because I feel you can get better each day," said Cole, who explained that he's motivated by several deep principles — his heart, his background and a desire to continually make his parents proud of him.

Cole has played football since he was 6 years old and is confident he can adjust to any situation.

And at Utah, the situation is depth. Whittingham said safety is probably this year's deepest position on defense. Besides Johnson and Cole, Deshawn Richard is also pushing for playing time at free safety.

"The goal is to find every way we possibly can to get the best 11 kids on the field," said Andersen, who explained that sometimes there happens to be 12 or 13 players in such a rotation. "There's nothing like staying fresh in a football game. I don't care who you are — whether you're a free safety or a defensive tackle — you can't go play 60-70 snaps full speed and be the same guy you were on snap No. 1.

"So if we have an opportunity to get somebody some reps, we're definitely going to do it," he continued. "T-Cole and Robert both deserve those reps right now. They're both playing very well."

Scalley likes the depth because it keeps everyone competitive in practice. It's also tough on opposing offenses to stay fresh at free safety over the course of an entire game.

"We're fortunate enough that we can rotate in and out and give different looks," said Scalley. "There are different strengths that each possess. Terrell Cole is playing because Terrell Cole deserves to play. Robert Johnson is playing because he deserves to play."

Richard, he said, also does things the right way. As such, consistent practices are another variable that factors into playing time. Those who are more assignment-sound usually get more reps.

"All of them have their strengths," said Scalley. "What you want is for all of them to develop into a complete football player."

And progress, he continued, is continually being made.

Utah's defense led the nation in pass efficiency last season and is currently ranked eighth in total defense — allowing just 202.3 yards per game.

UTES on the air

No. 20 Utah (3-0, 1-0) at Air Force (3-0, 1-0)

Saturday, 2 p.m.

Colorado Springs, Colo.

TV: Versus

Radio: 700 AM

E-MAIL: [email protected]