The Seven Most Important Utah Defenders
By Rhett Wilkinson
It shouldn’t be a Jordan Wynn type of dilemma, but still, the problem in the spring was keeping the defense on the field.
The three brightest stars from Utah’s defense — linebacker Brian Blechen (tendinitis) and defensive ends Trevor Reilly (knee) and Nate Orchard (back) — were sidelined for much of spring practice. Fans shouldn’t become as concerned as they deservedly were with former quarterback Wynn, whose shoulder separation — the fourth of his career — in the second week of last season completely derailed the Utes’ plans of competing for the Pac-12 South Division title.
Blechen, Reilly and Orchard will lead the defense heading into August practices, though after safety Eric Rowe, mainly fresh faces will be behind them. After all, the defense sent six players to the NFL (three from the defensive line), five of whom apparently survived rookie mini-camp. Reports of seven returning starters are a misnomer, since as many as four started at safety, filling in for others for no more than a handful of games.
But with two lineman who are already past ripe set to start in the Aug. 29 opener against Utah State, the defense should be at least close to as solid as last season’s, which made Utah at least competitive last season. It ranked 49th nationally in scoring defense, compared to an offense that finished 75th in the same category.
7. NATE ORCHARD
Under the surname Fakahafua, Orchard (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) started at left end as a sophomore, earning honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors and racking up 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Orchard was Utah’s fourth-leading tackler last season with 48, including 9.5 tackles for loss with three fumble recoveries, three sacks and two forced fumbles. In Utah’s loss to USC, he provided the highlight of the game — at the time, in what appeared to be a Utah win — by stripping the ball from quarterback Matt Barkley and returning it eight yards for a touchdown.
Rising to the next level, however, is less likely for Orchard compared with his peers. The 20-year-old got married before his team started fall camp, changing his surname to his guardians’. He also won’t be playing alongside Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger, who were drafted into the NFL, and Dave Kruger (Joe’s brother), who signed with the Cleveland Browns.
Orchard probably will share more time with converted linebacker Jason Whittingham (Kyle’s his uncle) than his teammate, 2012 leading tackler Trevor Reilly.
6. ERIC ROWE, ET AL.
Not that this was a good thing, but Rowe was second on the team with 64 tackles last season. The junior told Dirk Facer of the Deseret News that Utah’s safeties are as good as any in the Pac-12.
“We can compete with anybody,” he said, explaining that everyone has gotten stronger and faster in the offseason. “We’ve got athletes in the backfield and we’re ready.”
The Utes return all five players who made starts last season, headlined by Rowe (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), who looks to become Utah’s best safety since the program boasted the San Diego Chargers’ Eric Weddle and current position coach Morgan Scalley for two teams led by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Tyron Morris-Edwards and Charles Henderson (strong safety) and Quade Chappuis and Michael Walker (free safety) are the others.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s Lya Wodraska noted that Morris-Edwards was impressive in the spring, and that the additional of junior college transfer Tevin Carter will enable defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake to keep star Brian Blechen at linebacker (more on that later).
5. TREVOR REILLY
As mentioned, Reilly (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) was the Utes’ leading tackler last fall with 69 stops. The senior earned honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors while splitting time between linebacker (eight starts) and defensive end (four starts). When Joe Kruger deferred his final season to enter the NFL, Whittingham quickly plugged in Reilly, now saying that Reilly is “an ideal end” for his team because of Reilly’s quickness, length and pass rushing abilities.
“The traditional big defensive end is becoming a thing of the past,” Whittingham said on the university’s athletic departments’ website. “"The position has evolved into a hybrid now — part defensive lineman, part linebacker.”
Reilly added 6.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading 4.5 sacks in 2012. He also forced three fumbles and picked off a pass. Because neither Orchard nor Jason Whittingham are his size, Reilly must do even more for the Utes to be competitive this season, aside from leadership.
4. TENNY PALEPOI
3. SESE IANU
Whittingham is adamant about how good these two are, ranking them among the best tackles in the Pac-12. That's why they rank this high on this list. It’s also why the ninth-year head coach is convinced that the defensive line remains fearsome despite losing Lotulelei and the brothers Kruger, maintaining Utah’s reputation as a feeder program for NFL defensive lines along the way.
Under Dave Kruger, Palepoi (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) played in every game and started one last season as a junior college transfer. Ianu (6-foot-2, 305 pounds) comes to Salt Lake City from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. With them, don’t get confused this fall: "Sese is just like Tenny. They are almost clones,” Whittingham said on the university website.
Whittingham said that along with the recruiting class that will be seen in August, the line could be better than the one that had three pros.
"Our tackles have probably been the most improved group of spring," Whittingham told the Tribune. "We've been fortunate to have a long run of talent on the defensive front and this year appears to be no different.”
So talented, in fact, that there was some chatter about the team adjusting to a 3-4, according to BlockU.com’s JazzyUte. But that would have been a major shift for the program since Whittingham has essentially run the same defense (4-3) since becoming Utah’s defensive coordinator in 1995.
2. BRIAN BLECHEN
Brian Blechen needs to find his way again. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior has plateaued since his freshman season, when he made four freshman all-America teams. Recruited to play quarterback, he won the starting job at strong safety in the first week of his first fall camp in 2010. He was a Pac-12 honorable mention in 2011 and … was the same last year, after being suspended for the first three games of the season. Though his team did move to a more difficult conference, his eye-popping numbers from his first season have not picked up since. His per-game production did improve last season (Blechen led Utah in tackles per game). But not being available for your team is something that doesn’t find its way into the box score.
After starting the first four games of his sophomore season at linebacker and one more last season, Blechen is expected to man the position full-time this year for the Utes' defense. Deepest at safety, Utah needs his talents most at linebacker.
But how smooth will the transition be? The last time he played the position extensively, it was against lesser size and talent in the Mountain West Conference.
One must think that Whittingham is downplaying the necessity of Blechen’s aptitude — why he’s ranked second on this list — this season when he merely says, as he did on the university website, that "Brian brings athleticism and toughness to the position and he makes a lot of plays.”
1. SOMEBODY AT CORNERBACK (AND NICKEL)
The three main players at this position (Moe Lee, Reggie Topps and Ryan Lacy) last season all inked with NFL teams, so, yes, they took up — as Whittingham said — “virtually every snap of corner play” last fall.
“We are starting over,” Whittingham said.
This one, well, tops the list because it won’t matter how good the Utes are in the defensive trenches if quarterbacks like UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton can throw over them without worry.
So who will it be? Senior Keith McGill? He played safety for five games in 2011, but missed the rest of the season with an injury and sat out all of last year with a different ailment. Justin Thomas, Reginald Porter, Davion Orphey or Hipolito Corporan? They’re all freshmen. At least Thomas was in Salt Lake last year, redshirting.
At nickel, apparently senior Michael Walker is OK. At least junior Joseph Smith may be an inspiration at this position.