Utah football: Coordinators change, Utes' defense doesn't
Before Fred Whittingham was hired as Utah's defensive coordinator in 1992, the Utes' defense was known more for giving up touchdowns than preventing them.
That reputation changed under Whittingham, who installed a defense heavy on fundamental, basic play that relied on athleticism and man coverage to stymie opponents.
Whittingham passed away in 2003 from complications following surgery, but his influence can be seen to this day in the Utes' defense.
The coordinators have changed from his son Kyle Whittingham to Gary Andersen to Kalani Sitake, but the philosophy Fred Whittingham implemented remains -- rely on the corners to play man, get to the quarterback as soon as possible, and don't bother with anything fancy.
"The gap control of the front seven, making sure we play with separation, there really are no secrets," Whittingham said. "We adhere to sound principles and we don't believe in running anything that can be exposed. Some coordinators are more willing to take risks, but everything we have in our package on paper is very sound."
It's a philosophy that has worked so well for the Utes in recent years that Sitake, promoted to defensive coordinator after coaching the linebackers the last four years, wants it to be just like past seasons.
"I hope I fit the mold of the other coordinators that have run this defense; that's what I'm looking to do," he said. "Week to week to week, we do a good job of game-planning and making adjustments, but we won't make any wholesale adjustments until we feel like we need to."
What is the key to the Utes' defense? It relies on solid play up front and very good corners who have to succeed at man coverage.
If there is one way in which the Utes' defense has changed the most since Fred Whittingham installed it, it's that the Utes use man coverage more now than ever.
While some teams have their nice, safe, zone defenses, Utah has gotten more aggressive by emphasizing man to man even more.
Some might see it as a risky philosophy, while Whittingham sees nothing but positives, as long as you have the right players. The essence of the success of Utah's corners is getting the right ones. Go get an Andre Dyson, a Brice McCain or Sean Smith and let them do their thing.
"Some see it as risky, but it could be the exact opposite," Whittingham said. "It could be 'Hey, everybody is covered'. Let your athletes be athletes and when there is a breakdown it's very obvious to pinpoint where it is. As long as you have the guys you can do it, why would you play anything but man if you can play man?"
Crucial to the corner play is finding a third and fourth corner, Whittingham said, which is why he believes the play of Lamar Chapman and Justin Jones will be as important as R.J. Stanford's and Brandon Burton's to the team's success.
"You have to have those guys to match up with the third and fourth receivers because you can't ask linebackers and safeties to cover wideouts, it just won't work," he said. "If you are going to commit to man to man coverage, you have to have those guys."
Remember the days of your neighborhood football games when you had to count four Mississippis before you could cross the invisible line and pulverize the quarterback? It seemed like an eternity, didn't it?
Those long seconds are the ones the corners must survive now, while the defensive linemen get to the quarterback as quickly as possible.
Ideally, Utah's corners only have to cover their guys about four seconds, which is why there is such a priority for speed among Utah's linemen.
Derrick Shelby (6-foot-3, 250 pounds), Lei Talamaivao (6-2, 280) and Koa Misi (6-3, 263) aren't going to be the biggest linemen Utah's opponents see this year, but the Utes do hope they'll be the fastest.
"Our covers want them to get to the quarterback in two seconds, the D-linemen want four or five to make their moves, we just want them there the shorter the better," Sitake said. "What we don't want is giving the quarterback six seconds and letting him scramble because that is hard. Everything we have is built on those four linemen getting to the QB."
Stopping the run comes almost naturally out of the defense, as long as everyone is doing their job, Whittingham said.
"It's getting heat up front and being athletic enough to play one on one on the outside, it's that combination," he said. "That way you can load the box up and be tough against the run because you've got another hat in the box. There is so many benefits to playing man coverage but not everybody can or is willing to."
The Utes though, will continue to use it until it doesn't work, no matter what coordinator is making the calls. It's the way they've been taught, the way they've learned and the way they've succeeded.
Utah's four defensive coordinators over the last two decades have basically adhered to the same scheme, while adding their own twists
|Fred Whittingham||1992-94||Credited with creating the base for Utah's current defensive philosophy|
|Kyle Whittingham||1995-2004||Made Utah's defense more aggressive with man coverage and made speed a priority to combat spread offenses|
|Gary Andersen||2005-2008||Used more odd fronts than past coordinators|
|Kalani Sitake||2009||If it ain't broke ...|
» Ranked 9th nationally in rushing defense and 18th in total defense in 1994
» Ranked No. 1 in MWC in total defense in 2002
» From 1999-2005, led MWC in scoring defense four times and was second three years
» Ranked 11th nationally in total defense and 12th in scoring in 2008