Utah football: After struggles last season, Utes feel good about secondary
Utah football • After rough 2013 season, Utes’ defensive backs are making strides.
Published: April 17, 2014 10:24PM
Updated: April 9, 2014 12:21PM
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Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune University of Utah corner back Reginald Porter, left, runs up field with Karl Williams during punt coverage drills at spring football practice at the Spence Eccles Football Facility in Salt Lake City, Utah Tuesday, April 8, 2014.

Reginald Porter is a fast man. In fact, Reginald Porter runs a 4.43 40-yard dash, but with an injured hip flexor? Not so much.

“And you’ve gotta run full speed in football,” he said.

Hundredths of a second can determine whether a receiver is blanketed or wide open, and Porter and his secondary teammates were sometimes hundredths of a second and thus miles behind Pac-12 burners in 2013. Now a healthy sophomore, Porter is part of the reason that cornerback is beginning to feel like one of Utah’s strengths.

Last year the Utes ranked No. 109 in the nation in passing yards allowed (267.3 per game) and dead last in interceptions (three). Those with picks — Trevor Reilly, Michael Walker and Keith McGill — are gone. So how could it be a different story just 10 practices into spring?

Porter’s emergence is part of it. Relishing opportunities to smother wideouts like senior Dres Anderson (“He’s fast, man, and he’s going to the NFL”), Porter has recorded at least two interceptions this spring and is fulfilling the promise he showed as an all state-quarterback and cornerback at Amite High School in Louisiana.

“We’ve always known that he had the speed and the talent to play corner for us,” said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. “In fact, he did some really good things for us in the fall last year, but he was a young freshman. Now he’s a mature sophomore and he’s playing like it.”

Porter’s fellow starters include physical senior Davion Orphey (who played in 11 games last season and recorded 33 tackles with five passes defended) and sophomore nickelback Justin Thomas (a 5-foot-8 wrecking ball who most recently demolished redshirt freshman running back Troy McCormick in the team’s first scrimmage Friday).

And already better than any of them, just maybe, is senior safety Eric Rowe.

Rowe has spent most of the spring working out with coach Sharrieff Shah and the corners, and if incoming senior transfer Tevin Carter, junior Charles Henderson, or a true freshman is able to lock down his old free safety spot, coaches believe Rowe has the potential to be an all-conference cornerback right out of the gates.

“He’s got a lot of ability,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s got great length. He’s 6-1-plus, big wingspan — along the same lines as some of the corners we’ve had here that have been very successful.”

Thus, the cause for optimism. Yes, the Utes face future NFL quarterbacks and receivers almost every week in the Pac-12, and, yes, more than ever they are spreading out three, four and five wide receivers. But the team feels secure enough at cornerback that they’ve switched sophomore Hipolito Corporan to safety for the remainder of spring practice.

“For right now, it’s a great start,” Sitake said. “There have been times that we were worried about having enough guys. We have the right bodies and we have the right players right now.”

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper

Utah cornerback depth chart

CB starter • Senior Davion Orphey (6’0, 185) OR senior Eric Rowe (6’1, 201) CB starter • Sophomore Reginald Porter (5’11, 181); backup: sophomore Mo Talley (6’0, 184) Nickelback starter • Sophomore Justin Thomas (5’8, 178); backup: senior Wykie Freeman (5’11, 174)