Utah football: Secondary stepping it up for Utes
Utah corner Conroy Black knows UCLA is a run-first team, but he hopes Bruins quarterback Kevin Price will test him and his Utah teammates a time or two.
"We do have a chip on our shoulder," he said. "People doubt us, so it's another opportunity to show what we can do."
While Black might have to be patient in waiting for those chances, since the Bruins run almost 65 percent of the time, his eagerness is a testament to the confidence in which Utah's secondary is playing.
Once the big question mark among Utah's defenders, the secondary feels it can hold up its share of the load. The Utes' defensive strength still lies in their run defense and pass rush, but Utah's secondary has done a nice job of getting turnovers and improving its pass coverage.
The Utes rank 27th nationally in pass efficiency (117.06), 15th in interceptions (12) and 87th in passing defense (244.78).
Those numbers aren't bad for a group that was more in rebuilding mode than any other area on the defense, with the Utes losing key players Justin Taplin-Ross and Brandon Burton.
The Utes also had the challenge of preparing for the pass-happy Pac-12 while they hammered out a depth chart.
"We knew going into the season we had a lot of talent there, but they had to develop," Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. "There are still some areas where they need to improve and there are three games left, but they've stepped up to the challenge and are good competitors."
The Utes' improvement has come despite losing one of their best players, safety Keith McGill, for the season with a shoulder injury.
Losing him led to the Utes' decision to move Brian Blechen, a freshman All-American a year ago, back to safety after he started the year as a linebacker.
Blechen, who has started the past five games at strong safety, has thrived once again and is second on the team in tackles with 54. He also has two interceptions, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
The Utes originally moved Blechen to linebacker after he put on a bunch of muscle in the summer and they feared he'd be too slow. However, if anything, Blechen said he feels quicker than a year ago.
"I'm more confident, so I make decisions quicker," he said.
Having Blechen back in the secondary has made the rest of the players better too, Black said.
"I played with him last year, so I knew he was a great football player," he said. "He is a hard hitter, physical player, and that gives us all confidence."
Black, the starting right corner, has been solid all year. One of his two interceptions this season came in the fourth quarter against Arizona, one that coach Kyle Whittingham called the play of the game.
"They are starting to play well as a whole," Whittingham said. "They are playing with the passion and energy we need."
The Utes have also seen the emergence of two promising players in freshman Eric Rowe and junior Mo Lee.
Lee, a converted receiver, has 23 of his 25 total tackles and all four of his pass breakups in his past five games.
"He continues to get better," said Whittingham, who was obviously pleased at yet another successful conversion of an offensive player to the defense. "He was one of the guys who had the least experience with us, and he has done a nice job of getting up to speed."
Black hopes he and his teammates get a chance to show again how they're all up to speed.
"You can get lulled to sleep playing a run, run, run team," Black said. "But that is where the great corners play with good eyes and technical skills. If you do your job and keep your eyes on your man, once you do that, the play action will never fool you."
Passing yards allowed by Utah
Montana St. • 183
USC • 264
BYU • 343
Washington • 226
ASU • 325
Pittsburgh • 50
California • 255
Oregon St. • 231
Arizona • 326