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Making an impact: Two new assistant coaches helping bolster Utes’ defense

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SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utah fans know about Andy Ludwig being added to the Utah football coaching staff as offensive coordinator, but some may not realize the Utes have added two other new coaches on the defensive side who are making an immediate impact on the team.

Sione Po’uha, a former standout defensive lineman who played on Utah’s undefeated 2004 team, has taken over as defensive tackles coach, while Colton Swan is the linebackers coach after serving in a similar position at Weber State for much of the last 15 years.

Each coach is under a bit of pressure this year, for different reasons.

Po’uha inherited a veteran group that includes all-Pac-12 tackle Leki Fotu as well as John Penisini and Pita Tonga, who split time as starters last year. The group is expected to be part of a line that may be the best in the league, if not the country, and it’s Po’uha’s job to make sure there’s no drop-off this year.  

“I’ve got to make sure I don’t mess things up, but at the same time add value and help these guys out.” — Sione Po’uha, Utah defensive tackles coach

Swan, on the other hand, lost a pair of all-Pac-12 performers in Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, not to mention projected starter Manny Bowen, and is trying to develop a young corps of players headed by BYU transfer Francis Bernard.

The gregarious Po’uha grew up in Salt Lake and attended East High and joked, “I pretty much know every nook and corner in the city.” He came up to the U., “just a stone’s throw” from East, he says, and earned four letters at Utah, becoming a first-team all-Mountain West Conference defensive lineman for Utah’s undefeated Fiesta Bowl champion team in 2004.

After college, Po’uha went to the NFL and played in 106 games with 55 starts between 2005 and 2012 for the New York Jets before a back injury ended his career. He was a student assistant at the U. for two years before becoming the director of player development in 2017. Last year, he went to Navy as the defensive tackles coach before returning to Utah with the same position.

To say he likes his job is an understatement.

“I love it,” he said. “I love being out here, I love the (players) I work with. I love the guys I work alongside with in terms of coaches. It’s super awesome.”

He said his job entails more than just teaching his players proper technique.

“I want to help my players get better in every aspect of life,” he said. “I need to be a resource support, a guide, a crying shoulder, a psychiatrist — whatever I can to help my guys develop on the field and off the field.”

He said there’s “no doubt” being blessed with one of the best defensive lines in the country makes his job easier, but it also brings extra pressure. 

“It’s also the expectations the guys have set,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure I don’t mess things up, but at the same time add value and help these guys out.”

Fotu says there’s been “no drop-off” from coach Gary Andersen, last year’s tackles coach, who left Utah to be the head coach at Utah State. 

“Everything (Po’uha has) been teaching us since he got here has been really helpful, especially because he actually played the position and has been in the (NFL),” he said. “He’s a real fun guy to be around. He loves us, but when we come out here to practice, in coach-mode, he’s really good at that.”

Of Po’uha, head coach Kyle Whittingham said, “Sione’s doing a nice job with those guys. Now he’s got good players to work with. ... Those guys are proven commodities. It’s not a situation where there’s a lot of guys to develop right now. so he just needs to continue to keep it tuned up and ready to go.”

Swan grew up in Jerome, Idaho, what he calls a “small, little town” north of Twin Falls. After a standout high school career, he came down to Utah to play at Weber State for coach Jerry Graybeal in 1999 and has never left.

After four years playing for the Wildcats, where he was an all-conference linebacker, Swan became a grad assistant under Graybeal and then got a full-time job under former Ute coach Ron McBride, who coached in Ogden from 2006-2011.

“He’s amazing. We love him and the knowledge he brings to us linebackers is key. We probably have to know the most of every position and he’s been terrific to us.” — Utah linebacker Francis Bernard on linebackers coach Colton Swan.

“Mac-Daddy was a great mentor for me,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of great stories and good memories with coach Mac.”

Swan stayed on the staff under Jody Sears and Jay Hill when he was hired in 2014. He jumped at the chance to come to Utah and has made an immediate impression on the linebacking corps.

“He’s amazing,” said Bernard. “We love him and the knowledge he brings to us linebackers is key. We probably have to know the most of every position and he’s been terrific to us.”

Swan praises the work of all his players, including Bernard, Devin Lloyd, Sione Lund and Trennan Carlson, and isn’t feeling sorry for himself about being a little short-handed at the position this year. 

“I’ve always had the mentality of, ‘Worry about what you got and not what you don’t got,’” Swan said. “Worry about what you got and do the best you can and make sure those guys have an opportunity to be successful.”

Whittingham likes how Swan is handling the linebackers and is also thrilled about his work with the special teams.

“The added bonus that Colton brings is special teams knowledge,” Whittingham said. “He’s outstanding special teams-wise. He’s been a special teams coordinator in the past and so for coach (Sharrieff) Shah to have a right-hand man in coach Swan is a big plus. He’s involved with every special team and obviously he’s doing a very nice job with the linebackers as well.”