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Defensive cupboard far from bare

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Utah's Morgan Scalley (25) and Steve Fifita (94) combine for a tackle.

Utah’s Morgan Scalley (25) and Steve Fifita (94) combine for a tackle.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Utah's defense had quite a performance in the Fiesta Bowl — racking up nine sacks and limiting Pittsburgh to just 17 yards rushing in 30 attempts. The only points the Utes surrendered in the victory came in the third quarter when they were up by four touchdowns.

"Our front has been strong all year long and we have won the line of scrimmage battle virtually every game this year. We had a good idea we matched up pretty well," head coach Kyle Whittingham said after his final game as defensive coordinator. "We are a high-pressure team and we got off the bus blitzing, ended up with nine sacks, and I cannot give enough credit to our defensive personnel. They executed the game plan flawlessly — an incredible performance and a great way to finish the season."

Junior nose guard Steve Fifita was named Defensive Player of the Game for spearheading a consistent rush up front. Sophomore safety Eric Weddle finished with a game-high 11 tackles to give the Utes another reason to be optimistic next season.

Under Whittingham's direction, Utah's defense has ranked among the best in the Mountain West Conference on a yearly basis. Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who faced the defense in practice every day for two years as Utah's quarterbacks coach, said the Utes simply reload on that side of the ball. No need to rebuild, the scheme has passed the test of time.

After 10 seasons as defensive coordinator, Whittingham has turned the reins over to Gary Andersen. The former Southern Utah head coach drew praise from Urban Meyer for his work with the defensive line. Fifita and senior tackle Sione Pouha were named first-team all-conference in 2004.

A look at the Utah defense next season, by position:


Starters returning: Marquess Ledbetter, Kite Afeaki, Steve Fifita

Starters lost: Sione Pouha, Tevita Kemoeatu, Jonathan Fanene.

Others lost: Reza Williams.

Others returning: Martail Burnette, Kelly Talavou.

The Utes have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Sione Pouha, a team captain and an emotional leader of the team. They got a taste of life without the former East High star when he missed most of three games with an injury. In those contests, Utah's rush defense swelled from 120.8 yards per game to 233.

Tevita Kemoeatu, his replacement, and defensive end Jonathan Fanene will also be missed. Fanene returned an interception 76 yards for a touchdown against Utah State. Top reserve Reza Williams is another significant loss up front.

The cupboard, however, is far from bare.

Anchored by Fifita and open end Marquess Ledbetter, the Utes have a solid foundation to work around. Kite Afeaki, a part-time starter in 2004, is poised to take a full-time spot. Utah coaches are also high on Idaho transfer Kelly Talavou, who practiced but did not play last season. Defensive end Martail Burnette is another player to watch.


Starter returning: Spencer Toone.

Starters lost: Tommy Hackenbruck, Corey Dodds.

Others lost: None.

Others returning: Kyle Brady, Grady Marshall, Taylor Miller, Malakai Mokofisi, Alex Puccinelli, Joe Jiannoni.

Junior Spencer Toone led the Utes with 115 tackles. His return is extremely welcome considering Utah's two other starting linebackers — Tommy Hackenbruck and Corey Dodds — are graduating. Hackenbruck, who manned the middle, had a game-high three sacks in the bowl victory over Pitt. He wound up with 10 tackles, while Dodds assisted on five stops.

Replacing the pair may result in a youth movement of sorts. At the Fiesta Bowl, freshmen backed up both on the depth chart. Taylor Miller was listed as No. 2 at middle linebacker and Malakai Mokofisi was second behind Dodds at "stud."

Kyle Brady, Grady Marshall and Alex Puccinelli are others in the mix who could earn starting spots with good showings in spring ball and training camp.


Starters returning: Eric Weddle, Casey Evans.

Starter lost: Morgan Scalley.

Others lost: Kawika Casco.

Others returning: Antonio Young, Tim Harris.

Replacing Morgan Scalley won't be easy. The Mountain West Conference's co-Defensive Player of the Year was a jack-of-all-trades for the Utes. He intercepted six passes in 2004 and scored touchdowns on a fumble recovery and a kickoff return.

Perhaps more importantly, Scalley provided lots of leadership as a team captain. Depth may also be an issue if back-up Kawika Casco is unable to earn another year of eligibility and come back from his second serious knee injury in two years.

On a positive note, Eric Weddle is back. The former Freshman All-American, who battled injuries as a sophomore, will likely inherit Scalley's free safety spot next season. The talented junior-to-be will give the Utah's a seamless line of succession that began with Scalley replacing Dave Revill.

Part-time starter Casey Evans may be the frontrunner to start at strong safety with Antonio Young and Tim Harris leading a cast of contenders for the position.


Starter returning: Ryan Smith.

Starters lost: Bo Nagahi, Gerald Fletcher.

Others lost: None.

Others returning: Eugene Oates, Shaun Harper.

Freshman Ryan Smith proved to be a good one. He made four solo stops and broke up two passes in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith's continued development should solidify the right side for the next couple of years. The left side, however, is a bit of a question mark. Bo Nagahi and Gerald Fletcher, Utah's only other starting cornerbacks, were seniors. That leaves a vacancy.

Senior-to-be Eugene Oates and junior-to-be Shaun Harper are the leading candidates to fill the post.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com