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Utah’s defense a ‘work in progress’: Who will be the next Mayor of Sack Lake City?

A bevy of newcomers are expected to fill key defensive roles as the Utes open the campaign Saturday against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium. 

Clark Phillips III, a true freshman, has been named the starting right cornerback, while Xavier Carlton, also a freshman, is expected to make a big impact on the defensive line. The Utes open their season Saturday against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Courtesy Utah Athletics

Even though Utah is breaking in a new starting quarterback, one of the major concerns for coach Kyle Whittingham entering the 2020 season is the defense.

Wait, what?

That’s because there are a bevy of newcomers expected to fill key defensive roles as the Utes open their campaign Saturday (1:30 p.m., ESPN2) against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Whittingham has said his young and inexperienced defense, with nine new starters, has made strides in recent weeks, but also has acknowledged there will be a learning curve.

“As we’ve known from the onset, we’ll have nine guys playing for us that have virtually no Division I experience. It’s been a process of getting them up to speed,” he said. “There’s going to be a period of time where they have to play their way into game situations. We’re doing the best we can to simulate that and put them in a lot of live work, but there is nothing really that can replicate an actual game and what it’ll be like. They’ll just have to settle in and get used to the speed of the game once the season starts.”

On Utah’s depth chart, released Monday, there are six defensive players that will be making their first career starts — defensive lineman Viane Moala; left corner JaTravis Broughton; right corner Clark Phillips III; nickelback Malone Mataele; free safety Vonte Davis; and strong safety Nate Ritchie.

Both Phillips and Ritchie are true freshmen.

Another starter, senior defensive lineman Hauati Pututau, has only one career start under his belt.

The Utes are trying to replace three starters on the defensive line — Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini, who were each selected in the NFL draft last spring.

Anae was a 2019 consensus All-American and led the Utes in sacks from 2017-19. He holds the school’s all-time sack record with 30.

Because Utah has established a reputation over the years for racking up sacks, notching quarterback hurries, generally wreaking havoc and sending defensive linemen to the NFL, expectations are always high at this position, no matter the circumstances.

So who will be the next Mayor of Sack Lake City?

“When you join the D-line at Utah, you have to look back on the history of D-linemen that have come through this school,” said senior defensive lineman Pita Tonga. “Clearly, there have been many great players that have come through this school. I’ve been able to practice and train and learn from the best D-linemen that I could have. The ones that were here before always teach the ones that are coming up.

“For everyone that comes and plays D-line here, there’s that hunger. Everyone has that dream to play at the next level,” he added. “So there’s some pressure there. I feel like we do a good job of helping each other out.”

Defensive ends coach Lewis Powell said it’s not fair to put the same expectations on the new starting D-linemen as Anae had a year ago.

“What Brad did here had never been done before, but what we’re hoping is these young guys can come in and do what he did. Even though they didn’t play together, they sure hear a lot about Brad,” Powell said. “What he left was hard work, determination and practice and game film they’re watching. They’re hoping to one day be like him or better.

“Seems like Mika (Tafua) and Maxs (Tupai) are the guys that are leading doing that this year and taking over in that role. Hopefully we get someone that will repeat and have 14 sacks again, but if not, these guys are going to try as hard as they can.”

Two more promising freshmen that are expected make an impact on the defensive line this season include Van Fillinger and Xavier Carlton.

Utah’s secondary has new faces as well after last year’s stars, Jaylon Johnson, Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess, moved on to the NFL.

Tupai said those young players trying to step up on the defense side are up for the challenge.

“It’s been a pretty easy transition. A lot of the young guys are pretty hungry,” he said. “They are well locked in. They’re always willing to learn. They have a lot of fire in them. They seem to have picked up the defense pretty quick as well as the certain technique that we have and the plays that we run. The younger guys are doing really well.”

As usual, Whittingham is not going to make excuses about the youth and inexperience on his defense. He’s also candid about assessing where the defense is right now.

“We’re still a long ways away defensively. It’s still a work in progress. We have a short time to get things right. You’re going to see freshmen throughout the roster on defense getting playing time,” he said. “Now it’s time to get the new guys in there. Our job as coaches is to get them up to speed. Nobody cares that you’re young and inexperienced. Nobody cares at all.”