Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley concluded his heartfelt, entertaining speech on Dec. 10 during the Broyles Awards with a smile, telling the other finalists, “I ain’t winnin’ this thing, but whoever does, you guys are awesome.”
LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady received the award as college football’s top assistant coach. If the Utes (11-2) had beaten Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, Scalley likely would have schemed against Brady’s offense in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Instead of facing the Tigers, with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, Utah will meet Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Factoring in the absence of All-Pac-12 defensive backs Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon, Scalley will have a comparable challenge vs. Texas QB Sam Ehlinger and his receivers.
“We’ve got to do a great job of high-pointing footballs, knocking balls down, matching their physicality,” Scalley said.
Scalley, 40, last week received what the school labeled a “contract amendment,” designed to keep him at Utah for an extended period. He declined to comment when asked if the agreement formally makes him the eventual successor to coach Kyle Whittingham; The Salt Lake Tribune has made an open records request for the document.
In the short term, Scalley’s remaining a fixture at Utah is reassuring to prospects, with the NCAA’s December signing period beginning Wednesday. “He’s a guy that obviously is a hot commodity and had many options,” Whittingham said, “and so that put everything to rest, and recruits know that he’s going to be here for the long term, so that was great.”
Scalley expressed thanks for Whittingham's “continued faith in me, his trust in me, along with [athletic director] Mark Harlan,” adding, “I don't want to go anywhere … I see something special in this program and where we can head, and there's no reason for me to leave right now.”
Scalley will face major rebuilding next season, losing five All-Pac-12 first-team defensive players and three other senior starters. He’s already regrouping this month, having lost two all-conference athletes. Blackmon sustained a knee injury against Oregon and Johnson chose to skip the Alamo Bowl after declaring for the NFL draft as a junior (he almost certainly would played in a Playoff game). R.J. Hubert, Blackmon’s primary backup at free safety, also will miss the game due to injury.
Through 12 games, the Utes had allowed only 25 plays of 20-plus yards. Oregon hit them for completions of 45 and 50 yards and fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 70 and 31 yards, finishing with 432 total yards in a 37-15 win. Utah ranks first in rushing defense (70.3 yards), third in total defense (256.2) and eighth in scoring defense (13.2).
Even so, the Utes allowed four touchdowns vs. USC, Washington and Oregon. Texas is capable of similar production, especially considering the state of Utah's secondary.
A matchup with Texas receiver Devin Duvernay, who has caught 103 passes this season, would have been a good test for Johnson. Pro Football Focus graded Duvernay as the country’s top receiver on slant patterns, having caught all 13 passes on those routes for 263 yards. PFF said he “used his speed and sure hands to dominate over the middle of the field.”
Utah will have to deal with Duvernay and other Longhorn receivers with a makeshift secondary. Tareke Lewis will be promoted at cornerback in Johnson's absence, after sharing the job on the other side with Josh Nurse. Nephi Sewell will start at safety, while playing in only his third game for Utah as a transfer from Nevada. Sewell's NCAA waiver to play this season came through in late November; he'll preserve a year's eligibility via a four-game limit and will play as a junior in 2020.
Sewell will be a key component of Scalley's defense, this month and in the future. In the Alamo Bowl, Scalley will have to be creative with his available personnel, saying the defensive staff has some plans “in our back pocket.”
He’ll have to pull out everything in an effort to keep up with Texas.
NO. 12 UTAH VS. TEXAS
Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m. MST