SALT LAKE CITY — The Utes are ahead of schedule.
That was the message of Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah at the conclusion of Week 1 of spring camp.
Specifically, he was talking about the cornerbacks and nickelbacks, those players under his direction.
After just three days of practice, those defensive backs were already broaching concepts usually relegated for the later weeks of camp.
“You saw things show up on Day 3 that you are excited about," Shah said. "We were able to implement nuances that you don’t get to until maybe Day 10 or Day 11.”
Why is the defensive backfield off to such a fast start? Experience.
Utah returned a great deal of it this offseason.
Jaylon Johnson, Julian Blackmon and Javelin Guidry are returning starters — Blackmon notably made an offseason move from to corner to safety — while others, such as Josh Nurse, Tareke Lewis, Nygel King and Malone Mataele all saw playing time last season.
The wealth of experience has been a boon so far, enabling the Utes to get ahead of their training schedule.
More importantly, however, the returning experience has been helpful for Utah’s inexperienced defensive backs, who number nearly two dozen.
Utah listed 21 players at defensive back on its spring roster, including players such as Bronson Boyd, Daniel Fui, Brydon Johnson, Lucas Lilly, Tre O’Guinn and Jonoven Smith to name a few, most of whom have never touched the field in a competitive gamelike situation.
Jaylon Johnson, Blackmon and Guidry have, and because of that they have assumed a teaching role.
“You run about 60 percent of what you ran last year in the first few days (of spring practice),” Shah said. “There is not a whole lot of new install; it is our base coverages. When you do that, you allow those kids who are so familiar with those concepts to help teach. I can’t be on all aspects of the field, but they can.
“When I hear a young man like Jaylon or Julian — who is learning safety but knows corner intimately — teaching a young corner various aspects of a coverage it gets me excited.”
The effect of the veterans teaching has been felt.
“I love the way our pad level has been,” Shah said. “I love the way we were explosive. I love that things are showing up quickly.”
Shah has been especially pleased with the efforts of Nurse, King and Mataele, each of whom is on the two-deep depth chart.
“I am super excited about Josh Nurse,” Shah said. “He saw limited action last year, but I love how he is playing right now. He is starting to use his length as a weapon. He is so tall and reactionary.”
Then there is King, who Shah described as a “kid that may be able to do a few things,” a sentiment he shared about Mataele as well.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, meanwhile, has great expectations for Lewis, who is slated to take over for Blackmon as the starting right corner.
“Tareke is a very good football player, and he got meaningful reps for us last year,” Scalley said. “It is time for him to step up and he is doing just that.”
In addition to his role as defensive coordinator, Scalley also coaches the safeties.
Unlike the cornerback and nickelback positions, the Utes lack significant experience at safety.
Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard are gone, as is Philip Afia, who departed via the transfer portal.
In their place are Blackmon and Terrell Burgess, a backup safety a season ago, as well as R.J. Hubert and Vonte Davis.
Only Burgess has seen any significant time, but Scalley expects the group to be prepared once the season rolls around.
“We have a no-excuses mentality,” Scalley said. “All of them will have to step up. Terrell Burgess, R.J. Hubert, Vonte Davis, all of them. We haven’t had a year in the past few years where both safeties have played the entire year. Whether because of targeting penalties, or whatever, guys have to be ready. You have to have depth. That is the Pac-12. That is any Power 5 conference. You have to have depth.”24 comments on this story
Ultimately, whether cornerback, nickelback or safety, Utah’s secondary hopes to improve this season, with any head start gained in spring football serving as a catalyst.
“We did all right last year, but I wouldn’t say we were great,” said Jaylon Johnson. “We have a lot to work on. We need to hone in on the little things. We need to get our rhythm back, and chemistry. We have a lot of new guys in the back end, so we are trying to work on our chemistry and work on our communication. We are all trying to get better.”