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Utah Utes playmakers: Defense — Kruger set tone

Utah's Paul Kruger puts the clamps on Air Force QB Shea Smith during Utah victory. Kruger received all-MWC honors.
Utah's Paul Kruger puts the clamps on Air Force QB Shea Smith during Utah victory. Kruger received all-MWC honors.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Before his Weber State Wildcats played Utah in September, Ron McBride said the Utes had an SEC-style defense because of the speed and aggression in which they played.

Anyone who watched the Sugar Bowl knows the former Utes coach wasn't kidding.

Utah's defense dominated Alabama in its second BCS bowl win. The Utes sacked Crimson Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson eight times while holding Alabama's vaunted rushing attack to a measly 31 yards.

Utah had accumulated some impressive defensive statistics and rankings throughout the season, and the Sugar Bowl win was vindication that the team's defense was the real deal.

The Utes' relentless pressure on defense started with sophomore defensive end Paul Kruger, who recently declared for the NFL draft.

Kruger, an all-Mountain West Conference pick, recorded 16.5 tackles for loss during the season. He terrorized Utah State in Utah's 58-10 win in September, as he tied a school record with four sacks.

Kruger also returned an interception 30 yards to set up a touchdown in the Utes' 48-24 shellacking of BYU, and the play was nominated as an ESPN Pontiac Game Changing Performance that week.

Kruger was complemented nicely on the defensive line by Koa Misi and Greg Newman. Misi was third on the team with 68 total tackles. Newman had 50 total tackles and was second on the team behind Kruger with 9.5 tackles for loss.

Utah's linebacker corps was solid throughout the year. Mike Wright led the Utes in tackles with 81 total. Stevenson Sylvester was second in total tackles with 73, and he added 3.5 sacks. Wright, a former walk-on, was named the MWC Defensive Player of the Week when he had 15 tackles and a sack against Oregon State.

The Utes' secondary was led by junior cornerback Sean Smith, who also recently declared for the NFL draft. Smith had a team-high five interceptions, returning one for a score against Wyoming, while also recording 45 total tackles and one sack.

Joe Dale was the leading tackler in Utah's secondary with 66 total. Team captain Brice McCain had 35 tackles and an interception while nickelback R.J. Stanford had 41 total tackles and two sacks.

Free safety Robert Johnson provided key plays with an interception on TCU's final drive, as well as a game-changing pick against BYU. Backup safety Deshawn Richard turned in a memorable performance in Utah's 63-14 win over San Diego State, returning two interceptions for touchdowns.