Time is precious when it comes to an abbreviated camp before a shortened season. So much so, in fact, that cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley aren’t wasting any time in restocking Utah’s secondary.
Shah and Scalley head for the defensive staff room as soon as practice ends each day to study various aspects of film.
“We’ll sit and watch one-on-ones trying to get an idea of understanding of who is understanding our techniques,” said Shah, who added that they also view seven-on-seven tape together, look at it with the rest of the defensive staff and make their own notes. “But that’s been one of the biggest things that we’ve had to do quickly, often and over and over and over again. Quick evaluations, more evaluations.”
“We have been a physical secondary and we’ll remain a physical secondary. So it’s teaching those guys that that’s an attitude every single play. Your temperament and how you bring your level of physicality every single play has to be identified on film.” — Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah
The urgency is amplified with the task of finding new starters at cornerback, nickel back and safety. Utah has vacancies at every spot as the Nov. 7 opener against Arizona approaches. Departures to graduation and/or the NFL include Julian Blackmon, Terrell Burgess, Javelin Guidry, Jaylon Johnson, Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse.
“We have been a physical secondary and we’ll remain a physical secondary,” Shah said. “So it’s teaching those guys that that’s an attitude every single play. Your temperament and how you bring your level of physicality every single play has to be identified on film.”
Good players learn from recognizing their deficiencies, he continued, then receiving an explanation.
Shah said teaching the young defensive backs has been like force feeding them through an absolute water hose.
“It’s difficult. We have a defense that’s predicated on understanding very quickly what you have to do in a myriad of situations,” Shah said. “So having these young guys understand what we’d like them to do in various situations is difficult because we continue to implement our defense. We don’t stop slowing down the pace with which we are introducing them to various concepts that they have to be able to decipher then apply and execute at a very high level.”
Even though it’s tough, Shah added, it’s part of the process. Things have worked out well over the years. Shah said he’s seen glimpses of what the secondary can be, but he’s seeking consistency and noted there’s a few more weeks to grind it out.
Utah began camp with junior Bronson Boyd and sophomore JaTravis Broughton heading the depth chart at cornerback. Freshmen Moroni Anae and Drew Rawls were listed as backups. The nickel spot was more crowded with sophomore Malone Mataele leading a trio that included freshman Clark Phillips III and sophomore Aaron Lowe.
The safeties, who are under Scalley’s direction, have a more veteran flair with senior Vonte Davis and junior R.J. Hubert entering camp atop the depth chart. The duo have experience, but not a lot of it. They’ve made a combined 39 career tackles for the Utes.
“Replacing Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon is going to be very difficult. They’re great, great guys, so filling their shoes will be quite a task,” Hubert said. “But I feel like we have the tools to make an impact at the secondary spot.”
Hubert, who has overcome a serious injury, keeps in touch with Burgess. The former teammates text one another and the Los Angeles Rams rookie offers advice.
“He says to just buy in, lock in, write down my goals and look at them often,” Hubert said. “And so I’m reminded what it is that I’m shooting for.”
Freshman Nate Ritchie is on the two-deep behind Davis, while fellow newcomers Kamo’i Latu and Zemaiah Vaughn are backing up Hubert.
Ritchie has made an immediate impact. Whittingham said the Lone Peak product is absolutely in the mix and has done a great job since joining the program over the summer.
Junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, who led the Utes in tackles last season, said the secondary has performed well in camp. He said they’re stepping in for some of the best defensive backs in the NFL.
“Obviously that’s going to be hard to replace no matter what program you’re at, but I think our coaches have done a great job of just helping them get to that level as quickly as they can,” Lloyd said. “I think they’re doing a great job ... just like the rest of the team, you know, we just have to continue to improve.”