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No. 11 Utah’s defense bolstered by unsung performances, but tough test awaits vs. No. 18 Bruins

Defensive lineman Van Fillinger, linebacker Lander Barton and safety R.J. Hubert are among those that are making a difference for the Utes

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Utah defensive end Van Fillinger at the snap during game against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022 in Gainesville, Fla.

Utah defensive end Van Fillinger at the snap during game against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022 in Gainesville, Fla. Fillinger has been a steady performer on the Utes defense this season.

Gary McCullough, Associated press

Utah’s defense had a shaky start in its season-opening loss at Florida but has rebounded — giving up less than 11 points per game in its last four contests.

The No. 11 Utes will face one of their toughest challenges of the season Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, Fox) when they visit No. 18 UCLA, which is averaging 41.4 points per game, and is led by dynamic quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. 

“The defense gave us a lot of big plays. When you intercept four footballs, you’re going to win most of the time. That was outstanding.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on solid outing vs. Oregon State

This season, Utah has had a number of players that have been impressive, including cornerback Clark Phillips III, who had three interceptions in a 42-16 win over Oregon State last week and was named Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week; and safety Cole Bishop, whom coach Kyle Whittingham has called one of the best at his position in the nation. 

Overall, Whittingham liked the defensive effort against the Beavers. 

“Four picks, three by Clark,” Whittingham said. “The defense gave us a lot of big plays. When you intercept four footballs, you’re going to win most of the time. That was outstanding.”

Meanwhile, there have been several under-the-radar performances this season, like defensive end Van Fillinger, who has 2.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries.

“Van has no ceiling. He’s a freak specimen. I feel like this year he’s been more confident,” said defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi. “It’s his moves off the edge and he’s one of the strongest guys on the team. He’s been able to use his tools to build himself up and have the season he wants to have.”

Last season, Fillinger started 13 games at defensive end for the Utes, recording 41 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. Fillinger led all Pac-12 freshmen in sacks. Against Washington State, he became the first Utah freshman to tally three sacks in a game. 

“The last four games of our season is when he really came on. We expect him to make plays,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “He’s a guy now that is expected to make that play. He’s done a great job with his body during the offseason. He’s gotten stronger.”

Defensive ends coach Lewis Powell praised Fillinger’s work ethic.

“Van continues to be a sponge and a student of the game. He is understanding more about defense,” he said. “We’re getting more of a leadership role out of him this year. It’s been good. He’s on pace to do some really good things. He’s evolved as a pass rusher.”

Fillinger has taken his development seriously. 

“I think I definitely improved technically. I don’t know how to put a measurement on it but I just come to practice and try to get better every day,” he said. “It’s what I do. I’m going to keep trying to get better. I’m not even close to my ceiling. There’s always room to get better.”

Looking at the tradition of strong defensive line play at Utah inspires him. 

“You have to try to live up to the expectations. Just having that bar so high for us helps us in practice, understanding that we can’t lose no matter what the situation is,” Fillinger said. “We can’t be lost out there. We’ve got to win every rep and do our job as best as we can. That’s where the bar is. It’s just knowing that the people before me were really good and did their job just helps me get an idea of how good I need to be to fill their shoes.”

Meanwhile, freshman linebacker Lander Barton has acquitted himself well in his first year in the program, particularly with senior Mohamoud Diabate missing games due to injury. 

Barton has recorded 15 tackles and two sacks. 

“Man, has he made strides every single week. Much like Van Fillinger, his freshman year, where you’re seeing mistakes,” Scalley said. “You just keep putting him in there because you believe in his athleticism and believe in his talent. He’s picked it up fairly quickly and that ’backer spot is not an easy one to pick up. I’m excited for his future. But he’s got stuff to work on and he sees it every day and he’s got a great coach in Colton Swan.”

Diabate returned to the field last week but Whittingham is expecting more from him. 

“He was rusty. He was a little out of shape, which is to be expected with his down time. He wasn’t able to do a whole lot while he was on the shelf,” Whittingham said. “He did make some really nice plays. We expect him to keep getting up to speed and I’m sure he’ll be a lot more effective this week than he was last week.” 

Whittingham has liked what Barton has done this season, as well as linebacker Karene Reid

“Karene Reid has been the most steady from start to finish the entire season. He’s very consistent,” he said. “Diabate came back from a very significant lower leg injury. He’s a little bit out of shape, you could tell. He was gassed out a little there. We expect him to get back in the groove and get better and better as the year progresses.”

Safety R.J. Hubert had a 70-yard interception return against Oregon State. In the Florida game, on the opening possession, Utah’s Jonah Elliss forced a fumble and Hubert scooped it up and raced 47 yards into Florida territory, setting up the Utes’ first touchdown of the season. 

Hubert suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon in 2019. Then after a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign when he saw limited playing time, Hubert suffered another season-ending knee injury in the spring game a year ago.

But he’s been healthy this season and he’s helping lock down the Utes’ defensive secondary. 

On the season, Hubert has 28 tackles, has forced two fumbles, and had two interceptions. 

“I’m very proud of R.J. and for the adversity he’s faced and overcome. I’m just thrilled for him,” Whittingham said. “I couldn’t be more happy for a young man to fight through that and have the success he’s having right now.”


Utes on the air

No. 11 Utah (4-1, 2-0) at No. 18 UCLA (5-0, 2-0) 

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

Rose Bowl 

Pasadena, California

TV: Fox

Radio: ESPN 700