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The development of Utah’s young defense signals a bright future for the Pac-12 champs

The Utes overcame some early consistency issues on defense before making major strides in helping the program win its first Pac-12 title

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Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, left and Utah defensive end Van Fillinger celebrate.

Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, left and Utah defensive end Van Fillinger celebrate against Colorado in an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Several freshmen started, or saw significant playing time, for Utah’s defense in 2021.

At times, the young defense took its lumps. But it also developed and grew up during the course of the season. 

The performance by the freshmen not only helped secure the program’s first Pac-12 title and berth in the Rose Bowl, but it’s a sign that the future is bright on the defensive side of the ball. 

Defensive left tackle Junior Tafuna was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He started the final 10 games of the season and became the first Ute to win this award.

Tafuna recorded 4.5 sacks, second-most among Pac-12 freshmen, and he had a career-high nine tackles at Arizona, the most by a Utah defensive lineman since 2018. 

“He’s a guy that keeps getting better every day,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “His passion for the game is unmatched. It’s a pleasure to see him continue to progress. I’m really glad to see his hard work come to fruition.”

Meanwhile, freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III was a Second-Team All-Conference selection. Freshman safety Cole Bishop was honorable mention All-Pac-12. 

“He puts in the work. I’m pretty sure he’ll stay here for another couple of hours watching film,” Lloyd said of Bishop.

“That’s the stuff behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t see. He puts in the time and effort. He’s passionate about the game and he loves the game and respects the game. It’s what I expect from how I see him work and knowing the person he is. It’s what I expect from him and he’s doing a phenomenal job as a freshman.”


Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (6) just misses an interception as Utah and Oregon play an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Utah won 38-7.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Bishop registered 46 tackles, including eight tackles for loss, three sacks and five pass breakups. He also had a big blocked field goal against Oregon. 

“It’s starting to feel more natural,” Bishop said about his play. “Instead of thinking about what I’m doing, I’m thinking about how I can do it better.”

At different times this season, the Utes have started three different freshmen defensive linemen — Tafuna, Van Fillinger and Tennessee Pututau. Freshman Xavier Carlton has also seen considerable playing time.

After Utah surrendered 260 yards in a loss at Oregon State in October, Whittingham didn’t use excuses but he did point out that the defense wasn’t as experienced, and as physical, as it needed to be. 

“We’re just not quite where we need to be up front yet,” he said. “We’ve had flashes during the course of the year but not quite enough consistency.”

Whittingham said becoming more physical was tied to recruiting.

“You recruit it, first of all. We have some front guys that aren’t quite yet as big and strong as they’re going to be. They’re going to be very good. We have a lot of confidence in them going forward. Right now, we don’t have the 315-pound Leki Fotus and guys that we’ve had in the middle that are 295, 290-ish. They’re getting bigger and better as time goes on.”

During the season, the defense improved dramatically. For example, Utah held Oregon to just 63 yards on the ground in the first meeting between the two schools, and only 74 yards in the Pac-12 championship game. 

Rose Bowl

Rose Bowl on the air

No. 6 Ohio State (10-2)

vs. No. 11 Utah (10-3)

Jan. 1, 3 p.m. MST

Rose Bowl

Pasadena, California


Radio: ESPN 700

Whittingham said the defense’s improvement mirrored the development of the freshmen. 

“They’re getting better each week,” Whittingham said. “Van Fillinger seems to play well every week. Junior Tafuna is playing well. The primary reason for that is we’re starting to grow up at a lot of positions and get better and more consistent play.”

Utah lost defensive lineman Viane Moala in September to a season-ending injury.

“That forced our hand a little bit to play more freshmen. In the long run, it’s going to be a positive,” Whittingham said. “I think that coach (Sione) Pouha did a great job with those interior guys. They seem to be getting better and better fundamentally and technique-wise every week.”

Other freshmen that stepped up include linebacker Karene Reid, who recorded 15 tackles and a sack against Washington State, and defensive lineman Michael Mokofisi. 

“For a true freshman and in his first year in the program, he played outstanding,” Whittingham said of Mokofisi. “He wasn’t perfect; he made a few errors. But he’s physical and he’s smart. It was great to see him play at the level he did because he did some really good things.”

Utah’s young defense developed during the season and helped the Utes win a Pac-12 title. And the future on that side of the ball looks bright.