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‘Smarter’ and ‘stronger’: How extra time has benefitted Utah’s young defense

Linebacker Devin Lloyd, who led the Utes with 91 tackles last season, is confident in the nine new faces ticketed to start on his side of the ball.

Utah cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah works with his players as the University of Utah football team opens spring camp in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) looks on as Utah cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah works with players during spring camp in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s rebuilding defense isn’t dwelling on what the coronavirus pandemic has taken away. Aside from one padded practice during spring ball in March, the Utes haven’t been permitted to do any hitting. The lack of contact and loss of reps, obviously, isn’t ideal for a defensive squad seeking nine new starters in 2020.

The panic button, though, hasn’t been pushed. Junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, who led Utah with 91 tackles last season, explained that the Utes have focused on other things. Specifically, a lot of time studying film and lifting weights.

“We’re stronger. We’re smarter,” Lloyd said. “And you know that is going to hopefully be our edge in terms of lack of experience.”

Lloyd added that it’s been the main focus in the offseason. On Friday, the Utes open camp. They’ll be able to hit in practice next week after going through the NCAA-mandated acclimatization period. The season opener is Nov. 7 at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Arizona.

Throughout the postponement — that has led to a late start to the season and a seven-game conference-only schedule — Utah has vowed to be ready when play resumed. The Utes are the two-time defending Pac-12 South champions.

“There was definitely significant progress and you’ll see on the field,” said Lloyd, who noted that this defense is going to use mental toughness to its advantage. The defense will be “extremely cerebral” because of its inability to get a lot of time on the field during the pandemic to work on things like fundamentals and technique, he explained.

Every position group, Lloyd continued, has studied “hours and hours of film.” The weight room has also been a popular place. Approximately 90% of the Utes have set personal records in terms of strength and conditioning.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that the team has far exceeded past seasons in terms of installation meetings and lifting heading into camp. On-field reps will obviously bolster the former, while the latter has benefitted greatly from the extra time.

Lloyd said the combination is making the personnel changes on Utah’s starting defense an easier transition.

“We have players that buy in and we have great coaches,” he explained. “For us it’s not a matter of losing guys, it’s just a matter of reloading.”

Cornerback Clark Phillips III runs a drill as he and the rest of the University of Utah football team open spring camp at the Eccles Football Facility practice fields in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Cornerback Clark Phillips III runs a drill as he and the rest of the University of Utah football team open spring camp at the Eccles Football Facility practice fields in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the secondary, Lloyd notes that there’s a lot of talent. Highly touted signee Clark Phillips III is among a group ticketed to replace guys like Jaylon Johnson, Terrell Burgess, Julian Blackmon, Javelin Guidry and Tereke Lewis. The front seven, which includes the return of starting defensive end Mika Tafua, is charged with filling vacancies left by the departures of Bradlee Anae, Francis Bernard, Leki Fotu and John Penisini.

Utah’s starting defense will have a lot of new faces in 2020.

“Yes we only have two returning starters from last year but at the same time we got a lot of talent — a lot of guys who are hungry,” Lloyd said. “And, you know, I don’t see why we couldn’t do exactly what we did last year. Except finish it this time.”

Lloyd is confident the Utes have the players and the coaches to get it done. At the end of the day, he said, it’s just all about executing. That was the case last season when Lloyd and Bernard stepped forward to solidify the linebacker position.

“It all comes down to you have to prove it in season ... you can speculate all offseason,” said Lloyd, who added that it comes down to you and proving your worth. “That’s what we plan to do fully. So I have complete confidence in the guys coming in and stepping up in those roles.”

The Utes, he continued, are just anxious to get out there.