SALT LAKE CITY — A massive smile spreads across Jason Fanaika’s face when asked what he makes of concerns that Utah’s new defensive coordinator might be, at 71, too old for the job.
“Coach (John) Pease gets us going,” said the senior defensive end after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s full of emotion. He loves the game. Being around him, it’s just contagious. You want to love the game too.”
Fanaika said they were watching film from the first day of spring camp, when Pease broke down what he saw in a way that’s had a huge impact on the defensive line’s mentality.
“He said, ‘There’s three different guys,’” Fanaika said. “‘You have the person who is running to the ball because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. You have the guy that’s running just to keep up, and then you have the guy who is running to make the play.’ And then he challenged us, ‘Which guy are you going to be?’ I think everybody’s mindset is changing because everybody wants to make plays. Everyone wants to make their statement and with coach Pease's guidance, it’s going to be a lot easier for us as a defense to do that.”
While there was some concern from fans that Pease, whose coaching résumé includes 17 seasons in the NFL, 17 seasons in college football and three seasons in the USFL, may not be able to relate to the young players competing for the Utes. But in just four practices, it’s clear that not only can Pease keep up with his young players, they share the one common interest that’s most important — a love of all things football.
“We’re lucky to have him,” Fanaika said. “We’re lucky he came back, so (there's) definitely always something new to learn. He’s always trying to help us get better.”
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham announced Pease’s re-hire as defensive coordinator (he coached the defensive line in 2009-2010, as well as linebackers in 1977) about a month after fan favorite Kalani Sitake left for Oregon State.
He discussed why he asked Pease to come out of retirement — for the second time — after Utah’s first spring practice.
“Coach Pease knows our system,” Whittingham said. “He’s been in it, he was back in it in 2009-2010, and not much has changed. We’ve changed both coordinators (Dave Christensen left right after Christmas and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick and offensive line coach Jim Harding share offensive coordinator duties), but both schemes stayed the same.”
Whittingham said he had a team meeting after he’d made the decisions but before he announced it to the media.
“We made sure the players were all aware of what was going on,” Whittingham said. He also opened his door to any player who wanted to discuss the changes.
“I had players who came to my office and gave me thoughts and input that they wanted to express,” Whittingham said. “I certainly listened to what they had to say.”
It’s easy to see why the young defensive players love Pease. When they run to and from drills, he runs with them — or usually ahead of them. He’s one of the most vocal coaches on the field, although depending on the day, safeties and special teams coach Morgan Scalley and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah definitely give him a run for his money.
After one linebacker picked off a pass and ran it back for a touchdown, he ripped his defense for failing to run to the end zone to congratulate their teammate. Dissatisfied with Tuesday's tackling in the first half of practice, he made his linemen run 10 sets of sprints ("gassers") for failure to tackle on the first day they could.
"If we can't do things right, we're going to be chasing receivers and ball carriers all over the field, so we might as well get good at running," Pease said during a post-practice interview on ESPN 700 AM. "So we practiced running."
Scalley, a coach many speculated was a candidate for the defensive coordinator’s job, said anyone concerned about Pease’s age doesn’t know him.
“The guy has 17 years of NFL experience, talk about recruiting,” Scalley said. “You’re getting a guy who knows his stuff. He has a ton of energy. Those that think that type of age doesn’t bring a lot of energy and excitement, you don’t know John Pease. That’s what he’s all about. He’s great with the players, and they love him.”
Junior defensive end Hunter Dimick laughed when asked if he ever thought about Pease’s age.
“I’ve got nothing but great things to say about coach Pease,” he said. “He’s got more energy than us half the time. He’s awesome. He gets us going, just like Kalani did. He loves it. He’s passionate about it, and we feed off of that.”
Dimick said Pease has helped him refine his technique, as well as inspired him emotionally, saying: “He brings it all.”