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Utes football: Utah returns a vast amount of experience at safety

Utah's Eric Rowe during practice Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at Rice Eccles Stadium.
Utah's Eric Rowe during practice Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at Rice Eccles Stadium.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to experience and returning starters, safety is a position of wealth for the Utah Utes. They return all five players who made starts last season, including headliners Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. Tyron Morris-Edwards, Quade Chappuis and Michael Walker are the others.

“It’s an exciting group, obviously. Right now it’s fun because we’re trying to get the younger guys to come along,” said Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley, who noted the importance of building more depth. “In this league stuff happens and you’ve got to be able to bring guys in and not miss a beat.”

Blechen was suspended for the first three games last season and Rowe later missed two because of a hamstring injury. Chappuis wound up making four starts, while Morris-Edwards made one. Walker, who is now competing for the nickel back spot, ended up getting a start at strong safety against Arizona when Blechen opened the game at linebacker.

This spring, several others are getting reps at safety. The cast includes sophomores Charles Henderson, Josh Anderson and Darchon Taggart.

“If we can get those guys to come along we’ll be in good shape,” Scalley said.

If all goes as planned, Blechen may end up as a linebacker — especially if things work out with junior college transfer Tevin Carter joining the mix this fall.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said that Blechen is on the bubble again when it comes to being a safety or a linebacker. He's made starts at both positions over the past two seasons.

“A lot of it has to with how Tevin comes in and plays,” Whittingham explained.

Carter, a former wide receiver who redshirted one season at California before transferring to Southwest College in Los Angeles, honed his skills on defense last season — using his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame to make a team-high 62 tackles and three interceptions.

“We’re excited for Tevin to come in but when they get here they’ve got to learn and they’ve got to prove that they can do it,” Scalley said. “So we’re excited for him to come in. We believe he can do it, but time will tell.”

In the meantime, Blechen has been taking reps — albeit limited ones because of lingering tendinitis — this spring at both linebacker and safety.

“It’s kind of like last year and last year we didn’t have the luxury to leave him at linebacker. We just didn’t have that luxury and so we’ll see,” Whittingham said. “He makes us a more athletic group at linebacker if we can get that done, but we’ll see what happens.”

Whittingham added that Blechen, who was the team’s third-leading tackler in 2012, is a vital part of Utah’s defense and will play up front as a senior if the staff has its druthers.

As far as a position is concerned, Blechen doesn’t mind where he ends up. He jokingly added quarterback to safety and linebacker.

“Wherever. It doesn’t matter to me,” Blechen said. “Whatever will help out the defense. By now, I pretty much know every position. So whatever works.”

Blechen’s versatility, Scalley acknowledged, is a great thing for the Utes.

“He’s had experience at both and it allows you to do a bunch of different things as far as disguise purposes you can go and not have to change personnel.”

Depth allows for such options. Even so, Scalley isn’t sure the position is as strong as it was during the Sugar Bowl championship year. The 2008 team featured safeties like Robert Johnson, Joe Dale, Terrell Cole and Deshawn Richard.

“That was a good group,” Scalley said. “So we’re getting there.”

Rowe, a junior who was second on the team with 64 tackles last season, thinks the Utes’ safeties are as good as any in the Pac-12.

“We can compete with anybody,” he said, explaining that everyone has got stronger and picked up some speed in the offseason. “We’ve got athletes in the backfield and we’re ready.”

Blechen noted that things are coming along well this spring. The defense as whole, he emphasized, is ready to be a lot better this season.

“I would say last year was kind of a disappointment,” Scalley said. “We didn’t make enough plays.”

As such, Scalley has made fundamentals and technique a priority for the safeties this spring. He added that progress is being made.

“Plays were there to be made last year. We didn’t come away with them. A lot of that is on me,” Scalley said. “We’ve got to do a better job of coming away with making plays.”

Blechen noted that the group is determined to succeed.

“It’s always a goal to be the best,” he said. “ ... I know every day that’s what we’re working to be.”

And there’s more to it. The safeties are also taking on an additional leadership role. The graduation of Ryan Lacy, Moe Lee and Reggie Topps has left the Utes without much experience at cornerback. The situation has been tempered with former safety Keith McGill, a senior, switching positions and the development of redshirt freshmen Justin Thomas and Reggie Porter. Junior college transfer Davion Orphey is also on the depth chart this spring.

“We all have to be on the same page — one guy messes up and everything goes wrong,” Rowe said. “So the new corners, you know, we’ve just got to teach them up, coach them up and just lead them.”

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said the Utes got a lot done Thursday in preparation for Friday’s scrimmage (4-6 p.m.) at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He noted that the scrimmage will be fairly extensive and consist of about 90 plays. ... The main emphasis of the scrimmage, Whittingham noted, is for every player to get better. “We want to see everyone take a step forward — that’s across the board,” he said. ... Blechen and Rowe were both freshman All-Americans at safety. ... Pac-12 Football Media Day is scheduled for July 26 in Los Angeles.


Twitter: @DirkFacer