The side effect of fielding one of the Pac-12's best defenses is the dropoff from the starters to the reserves is inevitable.
The gap between Utah’s No. 1 and No. 2 groups was the biggest issue cited by coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley after Saturday’s first of two major scrimmages at Rice-Eccles Stadium in preseason football camp.
“That's our job as coaches,” Scalley said of the second unit's need for improvement. “That's where we make our money, because in the Pac-12, there are going to be injuries.”
Possibly because the standards are higher for the defense, Whittingham was more complimentary of the offense, citing the running of freshman Jordan Wilmore, the growth of the offensive line and the downfield receptions of Jaylen Dixon.
The Utes worked out for nearly three hours in the session of more than 120 plays, plus special-teams activity, Whittingham said (none of Utah’s practices are open to the media and no scrimmage statistics are published).
Whittingham volunteered the information that star running back Zack Moss “didn’t take any hits,” without expounding about Moss’ status.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said being able to see other backs get tackled, though, was a healthy development. “I’m pleased with their production and their toughness,” Ludwig said, after Whittingham mentioned Devonta’e Henry-Cole, Devin Brumfield and walk-on Charlie Vincent, in addition to Wilmore, a prized recruit from southern California.
The Utes completed “three or four deep balls,” Whittingham said, labeling Dixon “as legit a deep threat as there is in the country.”
Utah Football’s Twitter highlights showed two long touchdown passes from Tyler Huntley to Dixon against the No. 2 defense.
Dixon caught 32 passes for 589 yards (an 18.4-yard average) as a redshirt freshman, becoming more prominent in November when quarterback Jason Shelley, his high school teammate in Texas, filled in for an Huntley.
Huntley likes the offense's progress in camp, and is becoming confident in his restructured offensive line. The senior said his ability to adjust protection schemes at the line of scrimmage in Ludwig's offense is helping the linemen, and Whittingham said the group “started to look like a cohesive unit.”
Line coach Jim Harding hopes to begin working with his five likely starters as soon as Monday, Whittingham, as the Utes move into the final week of camp.
“The great thing now after 10 practices,” Ludwig said, “is the majority of the installation process is done. So we're not running new plays, we're going back and repeating plays and getting better at running those plays.”
As for the No. 1 defense, Scalley’s only criticism was the defensive line’s lack of discipline in pass-rushing lanes, allowing quarterbacks to escape. Scalley likes the work of starting linebackers Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd; Whittingham said junior college transfer Trennan Carlson and Stanford transfer Sione Lund are the Nos. 3 and 4 linebackers in a defensive scheme that generally uses two of them, but he’s concerned about developing more depth.
Whittingham, who personally coaches Utah’s kickers, said Jadon Redding, Andrew Strauch and Nels Haltom all “took a step forward,” although none distinguished himself. The kickers collectively are making 70 percent of their field goal attempts, with a goal of 80 percent.