2. Celestial Star: Trevor Reilly
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 Kruger deferred his final season, 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 department's 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 Nate Orchard nor Jason Whittingham is his size, Reilly must do even more for the Utes to be competitive this season, aside from leadership. Kevin Gemmell of ESPN has discussed him as Utah’s “most important player,” saying that as last year’s leading tackler, he'll be asked to take on a greater role as a pass-rusher while also maintaining his run-stopping mindset.
When he is at linebacker, look for Jason Whittingham to be on the right end, which means lots of speed crashing on the backfield. That should also open things up for Orchard and Brian Blechen, who is making the move from the secondary to linebacker.
With six lost starters from the 2012 defense — five to the NFL — Reilly’s veteran know-how is critical. After redshirting in 2009, Reilly has appeared in 36 games with 20 starts. Offenses should want to stay away from him: he's forced seven career fumbles, tying for third in school history. He’s also tallied 21 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks in his career.
Gemmell is wrong when he writes that “it's very possible that Utah's offense and defense swap places in 2013,” when the former ranked 75th and the latter 49th in scoring.
He’s correct in presuming the impact of new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson and the rise of (Travis) Wilson at quarterback could dramatically improve that side of the ball. But he’s irrational to say that “as the offense gets better, it's possible that the defense takes a hit during the rebuilding process. It's Reilly's job to make sure that doesn't happen. No pressure.”
With Blechen, Reilly clearly must lead the defense, but it shouldn’t plummet.