After coaching two of the best linebacking tandems in Utah football history, Justin Ena has joined Utah State's staff as defensive coordinator.
Ena, 41, will work for Gary Andersen, who became USU’s head coach this week after a one-year return to the Ute defensive staff. Ena had come to Utah from Weber State in 2015, after Kalani Sitake became Andersen’s defensive coordinator at Oregon State. By joining the Aggies, the former BYU and NFL linebacker will have played or coached for all five of Utah’s FBS or FCS schools.
The move is “a great opportunity for Justin to run his own defense,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said after Thursday's practice. Most “assistants want to aspire to be coordinators and coordinators aspire to be head coaches.”
Utah’s assistant coaches were not available to the media, but defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley tweeted of Ena, “This guy is a great coach and I was blessed to learn from him for the four years that he was with us.”
Ena is credited with helping senior Chase Hansen become Utah’s first All-America linebacker in his first season at the position after moving from safety. Hansen teamed with senior Cody Barton as one of the Pac-12′s top duos in a defensive scheme that ordinarily uses only two linebackers. Hansen made the Sporting News All-America second team this week, giving him a distinction among linebackers in Ute history, the school said.
In 2015, his first year on the Ute staff, Ena coached Jared Norris and Gionni Paul, who produced tackling and playmaking statistics fairly comparable to those of Hansen and Barton. Ena previously was a defensive coordinator at Southern Utah and Weber State.
When he was introduced Tuesday in Logan, Andersen said an unnamed coach had expressed interest in the position. “Quite honestly, initially, I was going to be the defensive coordinator and was excited about it,” Andersen said. “But as soon as we got into this process, I had an individual approach me and wants to do it. There are very few people right now who I would say, 'I want you to do the defense.' But that guy is there.”
Ena made $275,000 at Utah, according to USA Today, and former Aggie defensive coordinator Keith Patterson earned $290,000.
Sione Po’uha already is working with Utah’s defensive tackles in advance of the Dec. 31 Holiday Bowl vs. Northwestern, having replaced Andersen.
Huntley’s and Hansen’s status
Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley told reporters he expects to start the Holiday Bowl, assuming he’s cleared to play in the coming days after recovering from a shoulder injury.
Hansen lifted weights Thursday as his teammates practiced. Asked if Hansen would play in San Diego, Whittingham said, “We hope so; [it] remains to be seen. He’s a little beat up.”
Asked if any players intended to skip the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, Whittingham said, “Not to my knowledge. Nobody’s approached me about that.”
Hansen missed the Heart of Dallas Bowl last December after an injury-plagued 2017 season, explaining after the game, "I’m obviously not full strength — haven’t been for a bit — and we’ve got guys that can play. It seemed like the right decision to let the guys that have been working, guys that are healthy, play.”
Hansen has played in all 13 games in 2018, and is among the nation’s leaders with 22 tackles for loss.
Ute receiver Britain Covey underwent surgery this week to repair a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee after being injured while returning the second-half kickoff of the Pac-12 championship game, he announced. His brother Stephen reported that Covey played the second half of the season with a broken bone in his right wrist – throwing two touchdown passes, against Arizona and UCLA.
“He'd never tell anyone this but he broke his wrist in the 1st quarter of the Arizona game, what he did after that was superhuman,” Stephen Covey tweeted.
Covey finished the season with 60 receptions for 637 yards, making twice as many catches as No. 2 receiver Samson Nacua. With 103 catches, Covey will enter his junior year more than halfway to Kevin Dyson's Utah career record of 192.
Freddie Whittingham, who coaches Utah’s tight ends, played with a broken bone in each wrist in the 1989 Holiday Bowl as a BYU running back.
Utah lost its top quarterback target in the recruiting class of 2019 when Jayden Daniels committed to Arizona State on Thursday. Daniels, ranked the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the country, is from Cajon High School in San Bernardino, Calif. Utah, California and UCLA were Daniels' other finalists in what recruiting analyst Greg Biggins labeled an “incredible come-from-behind win” for ASU. Daniels visited Utah on Oct. 20, when the Utes beat USC.
The Utes have a commitment from Cajon’s top receiver, 6-foot-8 Darren Jones. The NCAA’s December signing period begins Wednesday. With a small senior class and several returning missionaries, Whittingham intends to sign 16 to 18 players (including a quarterback) between December and February. The bulk of the group will sign next week, he said.