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Changing times: Utah's safeties more important than ever

SALT LAKE CITY — Run to the ball, fly all over the field. Run to the ball, fly all over the field. Run to the ball, fly all over the field.

Ask any University of Utah safety what their role is within the defense, and you’ll get that response, ad nauseam.

Ask what they’ve been working on through fall camp — running to the ball, flying all over the field.

Ask what sets Utah safeties apart from their Pac-12 counterparts and the answer will be they run to the ball and fly all over the field.

“I think coach (Morgan) Scalley’s key point is just running to the ball,” Utah freshman safety/nickelback Malone Mataele said. “He wants us to fly all over the field, to the ball. I think the biggest element for us as a defense is flying all over the field.”

At first glance, the answer appears rote, the kind of cliche or default response that players and coaches have mutually agreed upon.

It may actually be more revealing than it appears, however.

Times have changed on the hill since the Utes joined the Pac-12.

It used to be that the Utah defense played in that classic defensive scheme, a 4-3. Four down linemen, hands in the dirt, three linebackers with a pair of corners and a pair of safeties behind them.

That is no longer the case.

Now, the default defense at the U. is a 4-2-5, featuring four down linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks, two safeties and a nickelback.

Per linebackers coach Justin Ena, whose position group has lost three or four scholarship spots over the years, in favor of extra defensive backs, it’s all because of the Pac-12.

“The Pac-12 is all about 10 or 11 personnel,” Ena said. “There is no reason to put another linebacker in there. If we start going against 12, 13 or 21 personnel, we’ll put another in, but until then we have that nickelback in there.”

The personnel numbers indicate the number of running backs and tight ends in offensive sets. In the Pac-12, most, if not all, teams favor sets featuring just a running back and a tight end (11 personnel), or in some cases only a running back (10).

Those offensive schemes mean more wide receivers on the field, which necessitates more defensive backs.

“It is because of the 4-2 nickel,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Everything is 4-2 now, there is very little 4-3. We used to have a dozen, 11 or 12, scholarships dedicated to linebackers. Now it is down to eight or nine. We took scholarships from the linebackers and gave them to the defensive backs.”

At Utah, this season at least, those extra scholarships belong to the safeties and for good reason.

“Safety is one of the toughest positions to learn on the defense,” Whittingham said. “Just the adjustments, the learning curve. You put the onus on the linebackers and safeties to get people lined up. Safeties gets the DB’s, backers the front. There are more variables in the game as far as what they have to do in schemes. There is just a lot more to playing those positions mentally.”

In a 4-2-5 scheme, the linebackers are used primarily in run support, though they do drop into coverage on occasion.

“We take care of the run game first and then we drop into coverage,” Utah linebacker Chase Hansen said. “A lot of time when we are in that nickel package, or 4-2-5, it's run first, and then we want to be able to drop back.”

Safeties, meanwhile, are expected to provide run support as well, particularly the strong safety — Marquise Blair, returned from his season-ending injury, is expected to man that position. More importantly, however, safeties, particularly the free safety — Corrion Ballard will be the starting free safety — provide support in coverage, which with the additional wide receivers on the field is greatly needed.

Basically, safeties have to learn to run to the ball and fly all over the field.

Fortunately for the Utes, they are doing just that.

“I like the guys, I like their mentality and I like their work ethic,” Scalley, Utah’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach, said. “They are all playing well. Good players make good coaches, and right now we’ve got good players. We just have to keep on getting better every day.”

Not one for preseason hype — he’d prefer to wait until games have actually been played to evaluate his players — Scalley did note that, “I have two guys in there (Ballard and Blair) that are in shape and playing good football.”

Behind them are Philip Afia and Terrell Burgess, both of whom “are guys that have started football games for us and have played meaningful reps.”

All told, Utah has upwards of nine safeties on the roster, although some, like Mataele, are getting time at nickelback.

That sort of depth can only be a good thing.

“We can go all out, balls to the wall, and then the next guy will come in and there will be no drop off,” Ballard said. “That is what our depth means.”

“All of us can play,” added Blair. “We all know what to do, and we go out and do it. I just feel like we always go out and do our job.”

With 18 days left until opening day, however, there is still work to do.

“They just need to continue to become as smart a football player as they can,” Scalley said. “Just like any other defender, just get better every day. Don’t ever get to the point where you think you have all the answers. Always push the limit, get out of your comfort zone, and find a way to get better every day. Then (on Aug. 30) we’ll find out just how good they are.”