Utah’s defense was a bright spot of the 2023 season, and as the Utes gear up for 2024, it looks to once again be formidable.

The Utes return a lot of production from last year’s group — 70% according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly — which ranked No. 13 in total yards allowed last season.

The ongoing spring transfer portal makes things tricky while putting together a depth chart — so far, Utah’s only defensive entries have been safety Briton Allen and linebacker Shay O’Kelly, both of whom weren’t on my depth chart — as Utah looks to add to their defense, especially at the cornerback position.

If standard practice continues, Utah won’t make an official depth chart available until the week of its opener against Southern Utah on Aug. 29, so here’s a guess — at this snapshot in time, Wednesday, April 17 — at Utah’s 2024 defensive and special teams depth chart after spring practice wrapped up.

Below is a position-by-position look at Utah’s defense and special teams at the conclusion of spring camp.

Defensive line

The majority of Utah’s production from last season returns, with one notable exception. Defensive end Jonah Elliss, the most productive player on the defensive line — and the entire defense — declared for the NFL draft after a consensus All-American season. A single player on the defensive line likely won’t be able to replace his production — 37 tackles, 12 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and three pass breakups in 10 games — but the Utes have a solid veteran group returning.

“Losing Jonah Elliss is a big one, but you look at the depth we have and what Coach (Lewis) Powell’s been able to do at the defensive ends, really feel good about that group.”

—  Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley

Defensive end Logan Fano, who transferred from BYU last season, had a great start to his year, but his season was cut short after he tore his ACL during Utah’s loss to Oregon State in late September. Fano should be a starter, but when he will make his debut this season depends on his recovery time.

If Fano is absent to start the year, Utah is pretty well set at the end position with Van Fillinger and Connor O’Toole, both of whom started last season.

“Losing Jonah Elliss is a big one, but you look at the depth we have and what Coach (Lewis) Powell’s been able to do at the defensive ends, really feel good about that group,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said.

On the interior, longtime starter Junior Tafuna is back, and Keanu Tanuvasa, who started all 13 games at defensive tackle, also returns.

“Love the progress that Coach Elliss has made with those D-tackles,” Scalley said.

One name to watch as well is senior defensive tackle Aliki Vimahi, who played 230 snaps in 2023 and has been receiving praise from coaches this spring. He will definitely see the field again this season.

The continuity of this group, which was top 20 in sacks and anchored a top-15 defense, should pay dividends.

Linebacker

Prior to the spring, this looked like Utah’s best position group, with three starting linebackers returning.

“Sione Fotu is beyond ready, the type of kid he is.”

—  Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan

A lower leg injury to Levani Damuni in spring camp, which will cost him the majority, if not all, of the 2024 season, is a blow to the group, but Utah is still well stocked at the position.

Lander Barton — who contributed 34 tackles, two interceptions (including a pick-six), two pass breakups and a forced fumble in just seven games before a season-ending injury — and Karene Reid — who had 67 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups — are a formidable duo.

When Utah plays three linebackers, look for Sione Fotu to be in the mix.

He returned to the program last season from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and played the most snaps of any linebacker not named Barton, Reid or Damuni in 2023; he was on the field for nearly 100 snaps at the position.

“Sione Fotu is beyond ready, the type of kid he is,” linebacker coach Colton Swan said. “I don’t know if you remember back in 2020 when he came in the COVID year, but he started as a true freshman. He was right there in our four-three package with Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, and then the third backer was Sione Fotu. So he’s more than ready.”

Beyond those three are Moroni Anae and Trey Reynolds.

Cornerback

Veteran Zemaiah Vaughn is back to anchor this group after a strong performance last season — 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, an interception and six pass breakups.

“Zemaiah Vaughn is playing with the most confidence he’s ever played,” Scalley said.

At the other outside cornerback spot will be a new face, and it’s likely to be Georgia Tech transfer Kenan Johnson, who has impressed coaches from the moment he stepped on campus. Johnson had 29 total tackles (20 solo, nine assisted), three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and an interception for the Yellow Jackets last year.

“Kenan Johnson is everything we hoped he would be. Him and Cam Calhoun, both guys came in and picked up the defense very well,” Scalley said.

Smith Snowden, who got some run at nickel back in his true freshman season, should take on the position full time with Tao Johnson moving to safety.

“Kenan Johnson is everything we hoped he would be. Him and Cam Calhoun, both guys came in and picked up the defense very well.

—  Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley

“Smith Snowden, this is going to be a big year for Smith. He’s done a heck of a job both on the inside and outside. He’s very valuable to us,” Scalley said.

Scalley mentioned that he’d like to beef up the cornerback depth chart in the transfer portal, but as of now, the Utes have Michigan transfer Cameron Calhoun, who stood out in Utah’s spring game, Elijah Davis, CJ Blocker and Nick Howe for depth at the position.

Safety

With the departures of starting safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki to the NFL draft, there’s two new starting positions open.

Tao Johnson is the heavy favorite to lock down the free safety position. He mainly played nickel back last season, but spent over 100 snaps at safety, and has made the transition to that position well.

“Speed. He’s got really good speed over the top. He’s got great ball skills … Cole and Sione were very good, very good safeties, could play on the back end, but Tao just with his ability to cover ground is really pleasant to see back there,” Scalley said.

Tao Johnson practices during spring camp at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.
Tao Johnson practices during spring camp at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. | Utah Athletics

The other starting safety spot is a three-man race between sophomore Nate Ritchie, senior Stanford transfer Alaka’i Gilman and sophomore Johnathan Hall.

Right now, we’ll give the nod to Ritchie due to past experience, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the other two get the starting spot.

Ritchie played about 154 snaps at safety over 11 games last season, making three starts with 22 tackles and a sack. He also started every game in the 2020 season before going on a mission.

Utah will have two great backups in the two players that don’t get the starting job.

“I love the progress of Tao, (Johnathan), Nate, Alaka’i Gilman. So I really like that group right now. They’re going to be competing throughout the summer and throughout fall camp,” Scalley said.

Kicker

Cole Becker, who transferred from Colorado, revitalized Utah’s kicking game in 2023. He converted 15 of 18 field goals in 2023 — including a game-winner at USC — and made all 28 extra points; his field goal percentage ranked No. 26 in college football. He had 17 touchbacks on 35 kickoffs, so there is room for improvement there, but overall, Utah has a solid kicker entering the 2024 season.

Punter

Jack Bouwmeester averaged 45.5 yards on 55 punts with a long of 64 yards, compared to 2022, when he averaged 39.2 yards on 39 punts with a long of 52 yards. His average yards per punt ranked 14th in the country. If he can continue his ascent, the Utes should have another good special teams year.

Punt/Kick returner

Money Parks and Mycah Pittman both tried their hand at returning last season before the majority of the reps went to Mikey Matthews, who transferred to Cal this offseason.

Pittman had five punt returns for 33 yards before suffering a season-ending injury against Baylor in September, while Parks had two punt returns for three yards.

Another candidate is Dijon Stanley, who had a 49-yard kickoff return against Oregon.


Utah’s projected 2024 defensive and special teams depth chart

Defensive line

  • End: Van Fillinger — 6-4, 265, Sr. OR Logan Fano — 6-4, 250, So.
  • Tackle: Keanu Tanuvasa — 6-4, 301, So.
  • Tackle: Junior Tafuna — 6-3, 308, Sr.
  • End: Connor O’Toole — 6-4, 250, Sr.

Backups: Aliki Vimahi — 6-4, 305, Sr.; Simote Pepa — 6-3, 332, Jr; Ka’eo Akana – 6-3, 233, So; Jonah Lea’ea —6-5, 247, R-Fr.

Linebackers

  • Lander Barton — 6-4, 236, Jr.
  • Karene Reid — 6-0, 226, Sr.
  • Sione Fotu — 6-0, 226, So.

Backups: Moroni Anae — 6-1, 226, Jr., Trey Reynolds — 6-1, 228, So; Josh Calvert — 6-2, 223, Sr.

Cornerbacks

  • Outside cornerback: Zemaiah Vaughn — 6-2, 187, Sr.
  • Outside cornerback: Kenan Johnson — 6-0, 178, Sr.
  • Nickel back: Smith Snowden — 5-10, 185, So.

Backups: Elijah Davis — 6-1, 182, So.; CJ Blocker — 6-0, 181, R-Fr., Cameron Calhoun — 6-0, 177, R-Fr.

Safety

  • Tao Johnson — 6-1, 196, So.
  • Nate Ritchie — 6-2, 208, So.

Backups: Johnathan Hall — 6-0, 215, So.; Alaka’i Gilman — 5-10, 194, Sr.

Kicker

  • Cole Becker — 6-3, 235, Sr.

Backup: Joey Cheek — 5-11, 199, So.

Punter

  • Jack Bouwmeester — 6-2, 202, Jr.

Backup: Nathan Price — 6-0, 177, So.

Punt/kick returner

  • Mycah Pittman — 6-0, 214, Sr.

Backups: Money Parks — 5-10, 175, Sr., Dijon Stanley


In case you missed it

Utah’s Alissa Pili was drafted eight overall in the 2024 WNBA draft by the Minnesota Lynx. My colleague Brandon Judd breaks down what Pili brings to her new team.

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Extra points

  • Utah starting center Kolinu’u Faaiu reportedly enters transfer portal (Deseret News)
  • Mason Madsen commits to Utah basketball (Deseret News)
  • Cam Rising is back, Isaac Wilson’s ‘big step forward,’ Dorian Singer is as advertised and other observations from Utah’s spring game (Deseret News)

Up next

  • April 18 | 7 p.m. | Gymnastics | NCAA nationals | @ Fort Worth, Texas
  • April 19-21 | Baseball | Washington | @ Salt Lake City
  • April 20 | 10 a.m. | Lacrosse | Cleveland State | @ Cleveland, Ohio
  • April 21 | 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. | Softball | Idaho State | @ Salt Lake City

All times MDT.