Utah’s great pass defense will measure itself against Cal’s own tough secondary

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson is a top NFL prospect as a junior. He leads the Utes eight pass deflections this season.

Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson is less lonely these days.

Instead of having him stay on the left side of the field, usually being avoided by opposing offenses, Utah's coaches matched Johnson one-on-one against the best receivers from Oregon State and Arizona State the past two weeks. The strategy worked wonderfully.

No. 12 Utah’s first-team defense allowed a total of three points and Johnson got a lot more enjoyment from those games. He became highly involved in the scheme by covering OSU’s Isaiah Hodgins and ASU’s Brandon Aiyuk, two of the Pac-12′s top receivers, all over the field.

“That’s fun. I know I’m going to get some targets, because they’re ‘the guy,’ so it’s a fun challenge, going against the top guys in the conference,” Johnson said.


When • Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV • FS1

Since giving up three long touchdown passes in a 30-23 loss at USC, including Tyler Vaughns’ catch over Johnson, Utah’s secondary has stymied Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State. Each of those teams had compiled huge passing statistics in its previous game, before they combined to score 23 points against the Utes. ASU passed for 25 yards; the only catch Johnson allowed Aiyuk was a 7-yard play on an inside screen. Johnson is fourth in the Pac-12 with eight pass deflections, even though quarterbacks haven’t frequently challenged him.

Now comes another tough matchup for Utah’s defense, in a different context of being compared to the opponent. Athlon Sports ranked California’s secondary the best in the Pac-12, coming into the season. The Bears, who visit Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night, are third in the conference in pass efficiency defense (behind Oregon and Utah). That’s mainly because they have only three interceptions, compared with 12 for Oregon and nine for Utah.

Yet Cal’s secondary remains solid, as a big part of a defense that has kept 14 straight opponents under 25 points. The Bears feature safety Ashlyn Davis and cornerback Camryn Bynum, two outstanding players. They will take on Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley or his backups (Huntley expects to play, despite a leg injury that sidelined him in the fourth quarter vs. ASU).

On the other side, the Utes may not get nearly the same test as from previous opponents. Cal could be down to a third-string quarterback, after Devon Modster was injured in a 21-17 loss to Oregon State.

The Bears lack a premier receiver such as Hodgins or Aiyuk, so Utah may keep Johnson on one side this week. Either way, he's “such a weapon for the defensive coordinator, to have the ability to take something away,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Moving around the field is “not as comfortable as staying on one side, but I wouldn't say it's difficult,” Johnson said. “It's something I've got to get used to doing, following receivers back and forth.”

Johnson likely will be a high NFL draft pick after his junior year, and he’s determined to keep improving.

“I love Jaylon for a while lot of reasons, but perhaps one of the biggest is that he constantly thrives on finding new ways to motivate himself — every practice, every drill, everything,” cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said. “I saw it when I recruited him as a junior in high school. I love competition; I love competitive people.”

Shah cites Johnson's “competitive fire that has allowed him to excel and separate himself from a lot of folks around the country.”

Saturday’s game will provide a gauge of how Johnson and his teammates compare to cornerbacks Elijah Hicks and Bynum and the rest of Cal’s secondary. The competition may be stacked in Utah’s favor, though, if Huntley is healthy.


Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae was named the national Chuck Bednarik Award Player of the Week on Tuesday after recording three sacks in a 21-3 win over Arizona State. The annual Bednarik Award honors college football’s top defensive player. Anae was named the overall defensive player and defensive lineman of the week in the Pac-12.


Interceptions by Utah defenders in 2019:

2 • LB Francis Bernard, DB Julian Blackmon.

1 • LB Devin Lloyd, DB Terrell Burgess, DB Tareke Lewis, DB Jaylon Johnson, DB JaTravis Broughton.