Utah football’s defense appears healthy, deep, ready to be a strength

Utes have veterans at all defensive positions, but there are questions to answer ahead of the Sept. 3 opener at Florida.

(Hunter Dyke | Utah Athletics) Utah football practices in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 03, 2022.

The University of Utah is going to put a good defense on the field this fall.

That isn’t necessarily a fact, but more of an assumption that comes to the surface around this time every year. Regardless of defections or youth that has not seen extensive reps, as fall camp begins and the depth chart begins to take shape each August, the belief is that the defensive coaching staff will produce a good product.

Friday afternoon marked the Utes’ third practice of fall camp ahead of its Sept. 3 opener at the University of Florida. The team will not practice in full pads until next week, so a firm determination of what Morgan Scalley has at his disposal is still a ways off.

That said, the seventh-year defensive coordinator has already seen enough to believe that the aforementioned assumption has a real chance to come to fruition.

“For the most part, the leadership has shown up,” Scalley said Friday after practice inside Eccles Field House. “You can tell that there’s been a lot done without us. That’s how you can tell the difference between an OK team, and a good team, and whether or not you’ve got a shot, is what they do on their own. It seems like they’ve done a great job.”

A look up and down Scalley’s projected two-deep will yield more answers than questions and far more good news than bad news.

Arguably the best news: The secondary, so devoid of depth late last season that running back Micah Bernard started at cornerback in the Rose Bowl, is now healthy. All-Pac-12 cornerback JT Broughton is back from a torn labrum, while Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn, both lost down the stretch to season-ending injuries, were given full green lights for camp.

More good news: Fifth-year senior safety R.J. Hubert remains healthy after missing nearly all of the 2021 season following a freak knee injury on the first play of the spring game.

This defense is not without questions, but the questions are good ones because they deal exclusively with what to do with all the depth in some spots. You can start those questions with Hubert.

The safety situation appears to be three guys for two spots with Hubert, true sophomore Cole Bishop, and Illinois State transfer Clayton Isbell.

Of all the players Scalley was asked about on Friday, he didn’t pump up anyone harder than Isbell, a two-time FCS All-American.

“He covers a lot of ground, rangy, and the more he understands our scheme, the faster he’s going to play,” Scalley said. “With that length, he poses some problems. Man-to-man coverage against tight ends, some length in the post, so he’s shown up and done a nice job.”

Added All-Pac-12 cornerback Clark Phillips III: “I think with the experience we have, we shouldn’t settle for anything less than the best. That’s the goal for our secondary, that’s the goal for our defense, but with that, our daily habits have to line up with that. We have to continue to line up our daily habits, so when we line up game 1, there’s no surprise.”

Another important question: What is Utah going to do at linebacker with Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell gone?

Scalley on Friday was clearly in on Florida transfer Mo Diabate, a 37-game veteran at the SEC school with 17 starts. Pencil in Diabate, who is now healthy after missing spring practice with a shoulder issue, so the real intrigue at the position begins after the fourth-year junior.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham has been complimentary of true freshman Lander Barton’s play going back to the spring. Scalley followed suit on Friday.

“A lot more confident,” Scalley said when asked how much Barton has come along since the spring. “Usually, you can tell with the communication from player to player, because the backers are always communicating. Those younger guys are usually quiet, but the vets are usually the ones screaming everything.

“You can tell, he’s gained a lot in the offseason, and he’s getting there.”

If not Barton, potentially Karene Reid, who played in 10 games with six starts last season. Maybe both in instances where Utah goes to three linebackers to start a game.

Speaking of the Reid family, one more pressing question: Is Gabe Reid the answer at defensive end opposite Van Fillinger?

That’s another spot with good depth, but Reid has more experience than both Jonah Elliss and Miki Suguturaga, having played 41 games across four seasons at Stanford, totaling 168 tackles and 10 sacks. All of that work came at linebacker, although the 10 sacks indicate Reid can work off the edge, just as Lloyd did at times during his final season at Utah.

After asserting he has six or seven guys that could be in the mix for that second defensive end spot, Scalley noted that Reid does not have the size and long leverage of some of the other options, but then indicated that should not be an issue.

“I think from the few practices we’ve had and with my exposure to the playbook; I think there’s going to be more playing fast,” Reid said. “I was doing a lot more dropping, a lot more understanding route concepts, things of that nature, whereas opposed to here dropping is more secondary to getting after the quarterback, which I’m super excited about.

“I’ve already showcased that I can drop, I can cover. Now I think it’s time for me to let loose, get after the quarterback, and show that.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.