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Staffing the secondary is something the Utah Utes must do quickly in camp

Utah cornerback Malone Mataele, left, goes through drills while defending against wide receiver Robbie Colenzo during practice in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020.
Courtesy Utah athletics

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s depleted secondary is an obvious area of emphasis as the Utes prepare for the 2020 season. They need to replace all five starters from last year.

“We see good potential and talent. But, as everybody knows, that’s got to come to fruition on the game field,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “So it’s going to be one of our primary tasks this fall camp — to identify who those five guys are going to be, as early as we can, and let them start working together as a unit.”

Whittingham added that it’s much like the offensive line. The secondary guys have got to work together and get a feel for each other. Other than deciding on a starting quarterback between Jake Bentley, Drew Lisk and Cam Rising, Whittingham said filling the vacancies at cornerback and safety were the second-most important tasks of fall camp.

“We feel like we get a lot of good candidates,” Whittingham explained. “They’re all inexperienced and mostly freshmen and sophomores, but they have got to be ready and we’ve got to get them ready.”

Replacements are sought for NFL draft picks Jaylon Johnson, Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon. Other departed standouts include Javelin Guidry, Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse.

Utah opened camp, thus, with an overhauled depth chart in the secondary.

Junior Bronson Boyd and sophomore JaTravis Broughton are listed as the starters at left and right corner, respectively. Freshmen Drew Rawls and Faybian Mark are the top reserves. Sophomore Malone Mataele is the frontrunner at nickel back, while freshman Clark Phillips III and sophomore Aaron Lowe share the No. 2 spot.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley noted that the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of contact has prevented the cornerbacks from being able to press and jam into some techniques that the Utes teach in man coverage. However, Scalley expressed confidence that the younger players are eager to learn and that Sharrieff Shah is a great cornerbacks coach as the Utes prepare for their Nov. 7 opener against Arizona.

At safety, junior R.J. Hubert and senior Vonte Davis currently occupy starting slots on the depth chart. Hubert is backed at free safety by freshmen Kamo’i Latu and Zemaiah Vaughn. Freshman Nate Ritchie is also on the two-deep as No. 2 behind Davis at strong safety.

Scalley said some true freshmen will see action this season. It’s nothing new, however. He noted that past stars like Johnson, Eric Rowe, Brian Blechen and Marcus Williams all played straight out of high school.

The Utes have an experienced linebacker in junior Devin Lloyd. He led the team with 91 tackles in 2019.

“The biggest thing that he brings to the table again is that leadership he learned from Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, he learned from Francis Bernard,” Scalley said. “He’s a guy that understands how to work, how to grind and how to get others (and) bring them along.”

Scalley praised Lloyd’s production and added that he’s a very compelling football player.

“He’s a big-time leader for us and we’re excited for another great year from him,” Scalley said.

Junior Nephi Sewell is expected to man the other starting job vacated by the graduation of Bernard. In a three linebacker scheme, sophomore Hayden Furey is atop the depth chart for the third spot. Reserve linebackers on the two-deep list include sophomore Andrew Mata’afa, junior Jeremy Mercier, freshman Sione Latu and junior Moroni Anae.

Rounding out the defense is the front line. Although besieged by the loss of starters Bradlee Anae, John Penisini and Leki Fotu to the NFL, Whittingham said that traditionally the Utes have been able to reload on the defensive line. As such, he once again expects it to “be a strong suit.”

Left defensive end Mika Tafua, a junior, is the lone returning starter. However, senior Maxs Tupai has extensive playing experience on the other side. The tackle spots are currently topped by seniors Viane Moala and Hauati Pututau. Freshman Tanoa Togiai and senior Pita Tonga are also in the mix on the interior.

There are several players on the depth chart at end behind Tafua and Tupai. The group includes freshmen Miki Suguturaga, Xavier Carlton, Junior Tafuna and Van Fillinger. Junior Devin Kaufusi and sophomore Blake Kuithe are others to watch.