Taking a look at Utah's defense today, a lineup that has gotten a little more interesting with Brian Blechen's suspension. The defensive line once again is loaded with talent.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes the Utes can rotate as many as eight or nine players in the lineup without much of a dropoff, which means the Utes should be able to stay relatively fresh in games and wear down offenses.
Sophomore Nate Fakahafua is slated to start at left end with backups being Thretton Palamo and Hunter Dimick. Palamo, a former rugby player turned running back turned defensive player, said he feels comfortable in a defensive role. His physical, quick nature could make him a solid player for the Utes at end.
Joe Kruger is slated to start at right end and he is backed up by Niasi Leota, a mid-year transfer who earned the backup spot in spring camp.
The starting tackles are Dave Kruger and Star Lotulelei, with Junior Salt, Viliseni Fauonuku, LT Tuipulotu and Tenny Palepoi as backups. Lotulelei is the player getting all the preseason hype, but Salt, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, could be just as good and should even push Dave Kruger for the starting position.
Keep an eye on Palepoi as well. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Snow College transfer has enough talent that he'd probably start at many other schools. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him getting a lot of playing time this year.
The linebackers are a usual bunch, that is, a bunch of no-names that defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake remains positive can continue Utah's solid play from that position. Sophomore Jacoby Hale and LT Filiaga are competing for the starting role at rover, sophomore V.J. Fehoko is slated to start at middle with freshman Jared Norris and senior Dave Fagergren as his backups and junior Trevor Reilly is penciled in to start at rover with freshman Jason Whittingham as his backup.
Whittingham, the nephew of coach Kyle Whittingham, and Norris are just freshmen but are expected to compete for a lot of playing time. If Whittingham gets on the field a lot, it isn't due to any favors from the bloodline. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Whittingham had a solid spring and is expected to continue to develop into a major player for the Utes.
Seniors Mo Lee and Ryan Lacy are the projected starters at corner with Wykie Freeman, a sophomore, and Tyler White, a freshman, as their backups. Lacy and Lee should be solid in their positions. Lacy was honorable mention all-Pac-12 last year and has good speed with a 4.32 in the 40. Lee is a converted receiver who has steadily improved on the defensive side.
The Utes had planned to have senior Keith McGill in the lineup as well, but McGill continues to be injury-plagued. He missed the last eight games of the 2011 season and had shoulder surgery in July on his left shoulder. McGill will miss the season, but does have a redshirt year available.
Adding depth to the corners is sophomore Joseph Smith. He only played on the scout teams in 2011 after redshirting in 2010, but he does run a 4.45 in the 40 and now has a great opportunity to follow a good spring session with a strong fall camp that could earn him a lot of playing time.
The rest of the secondary is looking interesting with Blechen serving a 3-game suspension. Quade Chappuis moves into the starting role in Blechen's absence at strong safety with Michael Walker, a junior, and Terrell Reese, a sophomore, as his backup. Sophomore Eric Rowe is the projected starter at free safety with Tyron Morris-Edwards as his backup.
Junior Mike Honeycutt is the projected starter at nickel back.
So how will Blechen's suspension affect things? He does get to practice with the team so he shouldn't fall behind there. However, he already was being pushed by the other guys who have a lot of speed. Coaches are also extremely excited about Rowe's potential too. He could be the breakout star on the defensive side of the ball. At 6-foot-1, 205-pounds, Rowe has the tools and the talent to become a dominating player for the Utes.
If Rowe develops as the coaches predict he will and Chappuis continues to improve, Blechen might get moved back to linebacker where he played in the first four games of the 2011 season.
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