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Utah football’s secondary is young, inexperienced and a question mark ahead of season opener

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utes defensive coordinator, Morgan Scalley leads his charges as the University of Utah hosts Idaho State Bengals, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

The fact that the University of Utah’s secondary is young and inexperienced only became more jarring as Monday unfolded.

On Monday morning, the Utes released their first in-season depth chart. Between the cornerback, nickel, free safety and strong safety, there were nine players taking up the 10 two-deep spots. Of those nine players, five were true freshman, Faybian Marks (backup CB), Clark Phillips III (starting CB, backup nickel), Zemaiah Vaughn (backup FS), Nate Ricthie (starting SS), and Kamo’i Latu (backup SS).

Later Monday, with the depth chart in place, news broke that Bronson Boyd had entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. A redshirt junior cornerback, Boyd had been listed as a backup on the initial two-deep. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed Boyd’s portal entry Monday evening on his weekly radio show, further stating that true freshman Caine Savage would slide into Boyd’s vacant two-deep spot.

With Savage now in the mix, Utah appears set to play Saturday’s season opener vs. Arizona (1:30 p.m., ESPN2) with its 10 secondary two-deep slots including six true freshmen.

“Always optimistic, but it’s also facing the reality that mistakes are going to be made,” fifth-year Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley told reporters via Zoom on Wednesday. “We’re very talented back there, but there’s no replacing game-time experience. That’s something we’re excited for, it’s not something we fear or are nervous about. It’s time to get them out there and time for them to learn what it’s like.”

SEASON OPENER

UTAH VS. ARIZONA

At Rice-Eccles Stadium


When • Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV • ESPN2

How Scalley, Whittingham and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah have handled the secondary over the last month has been something of a puzzle. At least from the outside looking in.

Whittingham was consistent throughout fall camp that Broughton was looking like his No. 1 cornerback, which bore out with Monday’s two-deep release. Phillips III, a highly-touted four-star recruit from Southern California, began camp getting a heavy dose of nickel, but later started working more at outside corner.

That led to the notion that the staff was getting Phillips III ready to start outside, which led to two other notions. One, Boyd was shaping up as the odd-man out in terms of starting corners. Two, if Phillips III was going to start outside, that opened the door for redshirt sophomore Malone Mataele to emerge as the starter at nickel.

As things stood on Wednesday, Scalley said Phillips III is getting reps at both nickel and cornerback, but made it clear that his primary spot is outside.

“Nickel is somewhat of a hybrid position for us,” Scalley said. “You have to be able to be physical in the run game, you have to be able to cover perhaps their best wide receiver in the slot. Right now, Malone has done an unbelievable job and we’re excited.”

Whittingham had previously painted the safety positions as senior Vonte Davis, junior R.J. Hubert and true freshman Nate Ritchie vying for two spots. Just as he enthused about Broughton, Whittingham talked up Ritchie throughout camp, so the predominant thinking from outsiders turned into Ritchie at strong safety and Hubert at free safety.

Hubert injured his knee in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, but he was deemed healthy and restriction-free at the start of camp. Hubert, though, is nowhere to be found on the two-deep, with Whittingham indicating it could still be awhile before he is ready to go.

With that, Richie will start at strong safety, with Davis and his eight career appearances on defense sliding over to free safety.

“Honestly, it’s kind of surreal,” Ritchie said last week when asked what he thinks it’ll be like to play his first college game. “I never really pictured myself in this situation, but yeah, it’s very exciting to be able to play a game.”

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