Kyle Whittingham faced the same question last spring and again a few months later last fall.
The Utes, as they’re known to do each year, lost a load of talent on the back end of their defense. So Whittingham stuck by his answers each time he was asked to assess the outlook of the group that needed to replace several names that landed on NFL game-day rosters.
At times, it turned heads. He said last year’s young group could be even better. Whittingham echoed that throughout the season, and his assessment looked on point as true freshman corners rose to the occasion, unseated veterans and helped Utah’s defense get to another bowl game, where it ended the year on a happy note.
Utah’s coach is preaching that familiar tune again this spring.
“We may have more depth at corner this year than any time in recent memory,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of guys that we think are pretty good players.”
Utah lost would-be senior starter Casey Hughes, who transferred to Michigan. Nickel corner and punt returner Boobie Hobbs graduated. But after that? Every contributor is back. And they have serious competition, Whittingham said.
Junior Julian Blackmon appears to be Utah’s clear-cut No. 1 defensive back, coming off a stellar sophomore year and an MVP performance with two interceptions in the 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl win over West Virginia. Whittingham said 6-foot-3 Josh Nurse, a 2017 late enrollee who transitioned from wide receiver to defensive back, is in the two-deep depth chart at the moment. Another former wideout, 6-4 senior Tyrone Smith, has impressed coaches, too. Smith missed all of 2017 with an ankle injury.
JC transfer Tareke Lewis, who originally signed with Utah in 2017 but had to complete academic requirements to enroll full time, is here and working his way into the nickel position alongside incumbent sophomore Javelin Guidry. The Utes, Whittingham said, won’t be short of options come fall, especially with the return of sophomore standout Jaylon Johnson.
Holding the lines
The defensive line has holes it must fill. Whittingham knows it. But the spring practices thus far have shown him no reason why the Utes can’t replace the likes of Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts. Whittingham singled out junior defensive end Bradlee Anae and sophomore defensive tackle Leki Fotu as two early leaders on the defensive line.
It no doubt will help that the Utes welcomed back Gary Andersen as associate head coach and defensive line coach.
“Reload every year,” Whittingham said. “That’s the nature of the game. Seniors graduate, guys come up through the system and step into their shoes and we just keep on going.”
Young, talented, but also unproven
Guy Holliday’s appropriate response went like this: “Let’s see. Ask me after the season.”
Utah’s wide receivers coach recently was asked where this group of wideouts stacks up in relation to the other receiver corps he’s had during his years coaching the Utes. Holliday said talent only gets you so far. Without a senior on the roster, Utah’s receivers have to continue to grow.
“It’s all about results,” he said.
Utah returns juniors Siaosi Mariner and Demari Simpkins as well as redshirt sophomore Samson Nacua, all whom saw significant minutes in 2017. Holliday wants to see the younger receivers step up, too. Sophomore Bryan Thompson is out until fall. Sophomore Tyquez Hampton, along with redshirt freshmen Bronson Boyd and Jaylen Dixon, are names to watch.
“It’s definitely the youngest [group],” Holliday said. “If you say, ‘Is it the youngest talented group?’ I would say yeah.”