Not many undergo injury problems like Jordan Wynn did.
But like the former Utah quarterback — who was limited in his career due to well-chronicled injuries — many Utes on defense had troubles staying on the field this spring. The three brightest returning stars from Utah’s defense — linebacker Brian Blechen (tendinitis) and defensive ends Trevor Reilly (knee) and Nate Orchard (back) — were sidelined for much of spring practice.
Fans shouldn’t become as concerned with the defense as they rightfully were with the former quarterback. Wynn’s shoulder separation — the fourth of his career — in the second week of last season derailed the Utes’ plans of competing for the Pac-12 South Division title.
Blechen, Reilly and Orchard will lead the defense heading into August practices — though after safety Eric Rowe, mainly fresh faces will join them in the first unit. After all, the defense sent six players to the NFL (three from the defensive line), five of whom apparently survived rookie mini-camp.
Reports of seven returning starters are misleading since as many as four started at safety, filling in for others for no more than a handful of games.
But with two linemen that coach Kyle Whittingham says are past due to start, the defense should be at least as solid as last season’s, which made Utah at least competitive despite the ineptitude of the passing game. The Utes ranked 49th nationally in scoring defense, compared to an offense that finished 75th in points per game.
Though they may not all start this fall, here are 10 Utes to carefully follow on the defensive side of the football if Utah is to be successful this year.
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The nephew of the coach reportedly is nipping Nate Orchard at defensive end. The 6-foot-2, 234-pound sophomore is quick and strong, but some feel he may lack the size to become an every-down player.
In nine games since returning from an LDS mission in 2010 and redshirting the following season, he made 35 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and two forced fumbles in 2012. He was an All-State player in 2008 at Timpview High School and made the honor roll all four years. During that stretch, Timpview won three state championships.
Fehoko (5-foot-11, 225 pounds) started six games as a sophomore last season, recording 30 tackles. Dan Sorensen wrote for the Deseret News that “the Utah staff believes he has made major strides as a player and a leader since season’s end.” Fehoko is currently listed as a co-starter at middle linebacker with L.T. Filiaga but is expected to win one of the three starting linebacker spots this fall.
Fehoko in 2011 played in eight games, seeing increased action late in the season. Perhaps his most memorable moment as a Ute so far is his touchdown scored on a 57-yard fumble return in that season’s rout of BYU.
Under the surname Fakahafua, Orchard (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) started at left end as a sophomore, earning honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors and racking up 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Orchard was Utah’s fourth-leading tackler last season with 48 takedowns, including 9.5 tackles for loss with three fumble recoveries, three sacks and two forced fumbles. In Utah’s loss to USC, he provided the highlight of the game — at the time, in what appeared to be a Utah win — by stripping the ball from quarterback Matt Barkley and returning it eight yards for a touchdown.
Rising to the next collegiate level, however, will be difficult for Orchard. The 20-year-old got married this summer, changing his surname to his guardians’. He also won’t be playing alongside Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger, who were drafted into the NFL, and Dave Kruger (Joe’s brother), who signed with the Cleveland Browns.
If Orchard doesn’t become a leader in his third year, converted linebacker Jason Whittingham is behind him and could do the job.
Not that this was a good thing, but Rowe was second on the team with 64 tackles last season. The junior told the Deseret News’ Dirk Facer that Utah’s safeties are as good as any in the Pac-12.
“We can compete with anybody,” he said, explaining that everyone has gotten stronger and faster in the offseason. “We’ve got athletes in the backfield and we’re ready.”
If that’s the case, Rowe might have to emulate star power not seen at safety since Eric Weddle and Morgan Scalley helped lead the Utes to that BCS-busting season in Urban Meyer’s second year.
The Utes return all five players who made starts last season, headlined by Rowe (6-foot-1, 205). Tyron Morris-Edwards and Charles Henderson (strong safety) and Quade Chappuis and Michael Walker (free safety) are the others. Morris-Edwards was reportedly impressive in the spring.
The addition of junior college transfer Tevin Carter will enable defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake to finally keep star Brian Blechen (number three) at linebacker, as Whittingham has wanted to do for the better part of two seasons.
Reilly (6-foot-5, 255) was the Utes’ leading tackler last fall with 69 stops. The senior earned honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors while splitting time between linebacker (eight starts) and defensive end (four starts). When Joe Kruger deferred his final season to enter the NFL, Whittingham quickly plugged in Reilly, now saying that Reilly is “an ideal end” for his team because of Reilly’s quickness, length and pass-rushing abilities.
According to the Whittingham philosophy on defensive ends, that’s quite fortunate. “The traditional big defensive end is becoming a thing of the past,” Whittingham said after spring ball. “The position has evolved into a hybrid now — part defensive lineman, part linebacker.”
Reilly added 6.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading 4.5 sacks in 2012. He also forced three fumbles and picked off a pass. Because neither Orchard nor Jason Whittingham are his size, Reilly must do even more for the Utes to be competitive this season, aside from leadership. He’s only listed near the middle of this list on the assumption that he will receive the mantle well.
Whittingham is adamant about how good Palepoi and Sese Ianu are, ranking them among the best tackles in the Pac-12. That's why they rank this high on this list. It’s also why the ninth-year head coach is convinced that the defensive line remains fearsome despite losing Lotulelei and the brothers Kruger, maintaining Utah’s reputation as a feeder program for NFL defensive lines along the way.
Under Dave Kruger, Palepoi (6-foot-2, 300) played in every game and started one last season as a junior college transfer. Between him and Ianu, don’t get confused this fall: Whittingham has said the two are almost clones on the field.
Whittingham said that along with the recruiting class that will be seen in August, the line could be better than the one that had three players last year at the highest professional level of football.
Whittingham has said his tackles were probably the most improved unit in spring ball, adding that the Utah program has been fortunate to have a continuous string of NFL talent on the defensive line.
So talented, in fact, that there was some chatter about the team adjusting to a 3-4. But that would have been a major shift for the program since Whittingham has essentially run a 4-3 defense since becoming Utah’s defensive coordinator in 1995.
Since Whittingham said Palepoi and Ianu are almost clones, everything written about Palepoi just about applies to Ianu, too. Coming to Salt Lake City from Golden West College (Huntington Beach, Calif.), Ianu (6-foot-2, 305) has two years to play as well.
Brian Blechen needs to find his way again. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior has plateaued since his freshman season, when he made four freshman All-America teams. Recruited out of high school to play quarterback, he won the starting job at strong safety in the first week of his first fall camp in 2010. He was a Pac-12 honorable mention in 2011 and received the same honor last year, after being suspended for the first three games of the season for smoking marijuana.
Though his team did move to a more difficult conference, his eye-popping numbers from his first season have not picked up since. His per-game production did improve last season (Blechen led Utah in tackles per game). But not being available for your team is something that doesn’t find its way into the box score.
Blechen is expected to man the position full-time this year for the Utes' defense. Deepest at safety, Utah needs his talents most at linebacker.
It fulfills Whittingham’s vision for him, converting someone of average speed among Pac-12 safeties to one of its fastest linebackers. It’s a long time coming: Blechen started the first four games of the 2011 season at linebacker but just one since bulking up from 205 to 220 pounds two years ago in order to help anchor the front seven.
Whittingham even told the Los Angeles Times in September 2011 that Blechen had found a “last stop” and “his ultimate home” at linebacker — after Blechen had started just one game at the position.
The prognostication of the smoothness of Blechen’s transition is questionable since he has just one season to get it right in a difficult league.
One must think that Whittingham is downplaying the necessity of Blechen’s aptitude — why he’s ranked third on this list — this season when he merely says, as he did on the university athletics website, that "Brian brings athleticism and toughness to the position and he makes a lot of plays.”
The three main players at this position (Moe Lee, Reggie Topps and Ryan Lacy) last season all inked with NFL teams after this year’s draft, so, yes, they took up “virtually every snap of corner play” last fall, as Whittingham has said.
“We are starting over,” he added.
This one is near the top of the list because it won’t matter how good the Utes are in the defensive trenches if quarterbacks like UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton can throw over them without worry. Quarterback Travis Wilson may have had such a fine day at the Red-White Game — Whittingham said it was the best he had seen from any signal-caller since he had been on the hill — because the defensive backfield struggled as much as the sophomore excelled.
So, who will it be? At nickel, apparently Michael Walker (5-foot-9, 182) is OK. At least Joseph Smith (5-foot-9, 189) may be an inspiration (as the Deseret News’ Brad Rock once suggested) at this position.
Walker has played in 33 games in the past three years, with two starts. The first 12 (in 2010) came on special teams. Smith played on scout teams in 2011 and in two games last season.
Can Keith McGill (6-foot-3, 205) rise to the level of Moe Lee, Reggie Topps or Ryan Lacy? Only if the senior can overcome a Wynn-esque pattern of injury. He played safety for five games in 2011, but missed the rest of the season with an injury and sat out all of last year with a different ailment.
Justin Thomas, Reginald Porter, Davion Orphey and Hipolito Corporan? They’re all freshmen. At least Thomas (5-foot-9, 173) was in Salt Lake last year, redshirting. Dan Sorensen thinks he will be the answer.
“Thomas came to Utah as a heralded four-star recruit out of Texas. After a redshirt season, Thomas looks poised to play a significant role in the two deep at corner. Thomas played well in spring camp and is listed as a starter heading into fall camp. With another strong performance, he’ll keep that job in the season opener.”
Thomas was a first-team all-district player in Orange, Texas, in 2010, during his final year of high school.