Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t just make the bold assertion that the current group of defensive backs could be just as good as or better than last season’s unit. He doubled down.
Why should that give everyone familiar with the Utes pause? Well, not only did they lose four starters, but they lost four guys good enough to go to the NFL (two draft picks and two signed as free agents).
Given the chance a day later to temper those lofty expectations, Whittingham remained defiantly optimistic. The incoming recruits clearly fuel the bulk of Whittingham’s optimism about the secondary. Their progress, both actual and anticipated, puts grins on the face of defensive coordinator/safeties coach Morgan Scalley and Whittingham.
The next wave
Weight: 185 pounds
Hometown: Wooster, Ohio
Previous school: Dodge City CC (Kansas)
Hometown: Murrieta, Calif.
Previous school: Vista Murrieta HS
Jaylon Johnson<brPosition: Cornerback
Hometown: Fresno, Calif.
Previous school: Central HS
Hometown: Palatka, Fla.
Previous school: Riverside CC (California)
“We’re looking at how they move, how they burst,” Whitingham said. “That’s what we base things on, because we know as things go on they’re going to feel more and more comfortable. That’s what coaches look for, the upside and ceiling, not necessarily where you are now but if we sink the reps in you where can you be.”
The Utes added five players to the defensive backfield this offseason, including freshmen Jaylon Johnson and Javelin Guidry as well as junior college transfers Corrion Ballard (mid-year transfer), Marquise Blair and Tareke Lewis. Lewis has not joined the team during preseason camp for academic reasons, but he is expected within the next two weeks.
The Utes’ only returning starting defensive back, Chase Hansen, will likely miss a large chunk of preseason due to what the Whittingham has only described as a lingering injury. Senior nickleback Boobie Hobbs, junior cornerback Casey Hughes, sophomore corner Julian Blackmon, sophomore safety Philip Afia and redshirt freshman corner Nygel King will also compete for playing time.
However, Johnson — a five-star recruit from California — has impressed immediately. Blair was a junior college All-American, and Guidry could be the fastest player in a Utes uniform. Guidry, who has 4.35 40-yard dash speed, set a California state record in the 100 meters this past spring.
“Number one is they have to run,” Scalley said of evaluating potential defensive back recruits. “You could have great technique and get burned in this league. The first thing we look for is speed and athleticism. Then we feel we can teach you the rest in terms of technique. There is a mix. You do have to see can a kid move his feet. Can he flip his hips? Those are some things you look for on film, but the technique stuff — a lot it we’re teaching them when they get here.”
Whittingham has already repeatedly referred to Johnson as being “as advertised.” When asked about Johnson after the first practice, Scalley blurted out “holy cow.” Scalley explained that most freshmen are “swimming” at the start because of all the things thrown at them, but Johnson was comfortable enough to make plays.
“I came in just aiming to get better,” Johnson said. “If that’s a starting spot, that’s what God has for me. I just want to come in and compete and whatever happens happens after that. I definitely do want a starting spot, and I want to earn my respect throughout the team and throughout the Pac-12 and throughout the country.”
Johnson’s experience in high-profile events such as Nike’s The Opening summer camp, which featured the top-rated high school receivers in the country, helped build his confidence in his physical abilities.
“In my opinion, I’m ready to compete with anybody and everybody,” Johnson said.
Blair, who joined the team for the start of preseason, must get a grasp of the defensive schemes and learn to play the strong safety. He played linebacker in junior college.Guidry said his two biggest adjustments have been getting used to the elevation and wrapping his mind around the playbook. Once he understands everyone’s defensive responsibility, he’ll be free to react and play fast. Right now, the speedster has to play catch-up.
“It’s way faster and nastier than I’ve ever seen, than I’ve ever been with,” Guidry said. “Everybody is running to the ball. Technique is sound in everybody being together as a unit. That’s what makes us a great defense.”
How fast thenewcomers approach that “ceiling” which has Whittingham excited willfactor largely into the team’s success this season.