If there’s one thing Utah coaches love about the defense going into the 2023 season, it’s the depth.

Defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs — the Utes have a mix of veterans and young talent.

“Defensively, we’re solid up front. We have a bunch of good defensive linemen, particularly on the edge. That’s probably the best group of edge players, as far as depth, that we’ve had in a long time.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

“Defensively, we’re solid up front. We have a bunch of good defensive linemen, particularly on the edge. That’s probably the best group of edge players, as far as depth, that we’ve had in a long time,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “Linebackers, we’ve got some good players there and a couple of really good players that we’ll add in the summertime. ... In the secondary, a lot of depth as well. So the defense has depth throughout.”

Utah is hoping that depth translates to a third consecutive Pac-12 championship

What has sophomore linebacker Lander Barton seen from this team so far? 

“I think we have a special group. Everyone is super close on this team,” he said. “You just feel it on the field at practice and in the locker room. We have great energy together. We’ve got bright things ahead.”

Barton added that the Utes are in the process of blending the new faces and the experienced players. 

“We’re just trying to build off what we ended on last year and continue that culture and that brotherhood each and every day,” he said. 

Help coming for linebackers

Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura, left, tries to get away from Stanford linebacker Levani Damuni Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. The Utes snatched Damuni out of the transfer portal in the offseason. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

Barton and Karene Reid return at linebacker, while Justin Medlock turned heads during the spring. 

“Linebacker-wise, Karene and Lander are two seasoned dudes,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “Justin Medlock has had a great spring,”

What did Medlock do to improve his stock? 

“No. 1 is what he did during the offseason in the weight room. He got a lot stronger. His body composition is different. Another spring of learning and owning the defensive scheme is another thing,” Scalley said. “Just what every kid you hope experiences — that development from season to season and taking advantage of a great strength staff and a great coach in coach (Colton) Swan. Justin Medlock is a guy that’s had the tools. It’s just putting everything together and he’s starting to do that.”

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On top of that, in the summer, Utah adds Levani Damuni, a transfer from Stanford, and Sione Fotu, who started prior to his mission. 

Scalley is looking forward to solidifying the linebacker depth and helping Fotu get acclimated after being gone for two years. 

“That group should be solid,” Scalley said about the linebackers.

Life after Phillips

Utah Utes CB Zemaiah Vaughn (wearing red) defends Penn State Nittany Lions WR Harrison Wallace III
Utah cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn defends Penn State’s Harrison Wallace III (6) in the end zone as Utah and Penn State play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Certainly, Utah will miss All-America cornerback Clark Phillips III, who was taken in the fourth round of the NFL draft. 

But the Utes have plenty of talent returning in the secondary. 

Leading the way is safety Cole Bishop, a two-year starter. At cornerback, Utah has Zemaiah Vaughn and JaTravis Broughton to provide experience. 

Vaughn and Broughton “have seen a ton of time. It’s their turn,” Scalley said. “They’re playing with more confidence.”

Adding to that mix is Ole Miss transfer cornerback Miles Battle, who has had to learn Utah’s system. But Scalley said that’s gone well.

“Terminology is the biggest thing that he’s had to get used to. Coach (Sharrieff) Shah has done an awesome job of teaching him technique and giving him tools,” Scalley said. “He’s just so long-levered that he provides issues for wide receivers at the line of scrimmage with as much man-coverage that we run. Coach Shah has developed him and has done a tremendous job of getting him to understand our defense. He’s enjoying it here.”

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Scalley likes the way the veterans conducted their business during the spring.

“Leadership is so much about owning your role in the program and then you have influence on others,” he said. “If you’re not owning your role, if you’re not doing everything on and off the field to take care of business, you’re not going to have much of an influence on others.

“We’re fortunate to have some veterans in this group that have bought into the process and bought into the culture,” he continued. “Hence, you’ve got better leadership. The defensive ends, man, a lot of athleticism and talent at that spot as well. No one has all the answers and you have to come to work every single day and improve. That’s what our goal is.”

At safety, Sione Vaki had a strong spring while Nate Ritchie, who recently returned home from a church mission, did not participate during the spring as he dealt with an injury. Ritchie started all five games at safety during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. 

Coaches have said they expect Ritchie to be ready in the fall.

“The secondary — I’m excited about that crew. Just the depth. Tao Johnson is going to be a heckuva athlete for us and provide some weapons at the nickel position,” Scalley said. “Scooby Davis is another kid that had a great spring and really took advantage of his reps.”

D-line depth 

Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss points out a false start as Utah and USC play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utes return Jonah Elliss and Van Fillinger at defensive end and Junior Tafuna and Simote Pepa at defensive tackle. Logan Fano and Connor O’Toole add to Utah’s depth at end and Tevita Fotu and Aliki Vimahi do likewise at tackle. 

“I’m very excited about our front, just the development of our younger tackles,” Scalley said. “We’ll have a good rotation with that group. 

The defensive ends, it’s probably the most depth that we’ve had, and we’re athletic at that spot. We’re really excited about the front.” 

Fillinger led the team in sacks before suffering a season-ending injury last season. He missed spring practices but he’s expected to be back in the fall. 

Who is expected to make the biggest impact on the Utes’ defensive line?

“Van is going to be ready to go for fall workouts and for fall camp. You talk about a guy that was probably our most productive defensive end last year,” Scalley said. “Van has continued to get in the film room and study. Those guys that may have not gotten reps are busy doing something productive.”

Scalley added that Fotu “was thinking about transferring but he stuck it out and had a heckuva spring. He’s put on the weight and he’s playing with much better technique. The backup D tackles are competing for starting roles. Those guys have done a heckuva job.” 

Special teams: Can Becker make a big difference?

Colorado place kicker Cole Becker warms up before a game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. The transfer kicker is expected to get the Utes more touchbacks in 2023. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press

One glaring weakness last year on Utah’s special teams was at placekicker. That’s why the Utes signed Colorado transfer Cole Becker, who booted a 46-yard field goal in the spring game. 

“(Becker) had a very good spring. He started out a little bit inconsistent. It takes some time to get used to a new holder and a new snapper,” Whittingham said. “But by about mid-spring, he really started to hit his stride. He was very good in the spring game. We think he’s going to be a very good addition for us.”

Last season, Utah was unable to get touchbacks on kickoffs on a consistent basis. Becker should remedy that as well.   

“He also has a big leg for kickoffs, which was problematic for us last year,” Whittingham said. “We covered more kickoffs than any team in the country as far as people returning the ball on us. We’ve got to cut that back.” 

Whittingham is also pleased with punter Jack Bouwmeester.

“Jack Bouwmeester is really becoming an outstanding punter. We didn’t punt in the spring game by design,” he said. “Our numbers are so thin, we tried to modify things as best we could to get through the game. But Jack has really stepped it up. Every punt he hit in the spring was three to five yards further than the ones he was hitting in the fall. We think we’ve got a really good one there as well. We feel good about it but you’ve got to go out and perform when the lights are on. We’ll see how we do when that happens.”

Utah’s projected defensive depth chart

Starter — Backup

DE 83 Jonah Elliss (Jr.) — 0 Logan Fano (Fr.)

DT 58 Junior Tafuna (Jr.) —  94 Tevita Fotu (Jr.)

DT 77 Simote Pepa (So.) — 95 Aliki Vimahi (Jr.)

DE 7 Van Fillinger (Jr.) — 81 Connor O’Toole (Jr.)

LB 21 Karene Reid (Jr.) — 54 Hayden Furey (Sr.)

LB 20 Lander Barton (So.) — 14 Josh Calvert (Jr.)

LB 6 Justin Medlock (Fr.) —  45 Spencer Clegg (Fr.)  

LC 4 JaTravis Broughton (Sr.) — 2 Kenzel Lawler (So.)

RC 16 Zemaiah Vaughn (Jr.) — 23 Faybian Marks (Jr.) 

FS 28 Sione Vaki (So.) — 6 Nate Ritchie (Fr.) 

SS 8 Cole Bishop (Jr.) — 24 Darrien “Bleu” Stewart (So.)

Utah’s projected special teams depth chart

K 36 Cole Becker (Jr.) 

P 34 Jack Bouwmeester (Sr.)

KR 2 Micah Bernard (Jr.)

PR 17 Devaughn Vele (Jr.)