Where did the famine come from?
Recent years have seen former Utah defensive backs Brice McCain, Sean Smith, R.J. Stanford, Brandon Burton and Conroy Black enter the NFL. Even after last year’s losing season, cornerbacks Moe Lee and Ryan Lacy, as well as Reggie Topps — the latter a nickel back for the Utes in 2012 — inked free-agent deals with teams from the best league in the world.
But the Utes shouldn't get too thirsty for quality defensive back play from Utah this season — they might only need to Rowe their boat to survival.
With star senior Brian Blechen’s shift to linebacker, the Utes may be parched in experience in defending the pass. They now face the reality of having just one consistent starter among five secondary positions returning this year. But that leader, junior Eric Rowe, may be the next in line among great Utah defensive backs — even worthy of the level achieved by a certain Utah star of the same first name.
But don’t let that make your thirst be quenched for a deeper defensive backfield — especially at the cornerback position. Blechen’s shift reportedly was made possible because of the coaches’ confidence in their safeties alongside Rowe. It won’t matter nearly as much, though, that Utah’s defensive line may be similarly equipped as last year’s, or that the addition of Blechen makes for a great linebacker unit, or even if Rowe anchors a strong trio of safeties, if quarterbacks like UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton can throw over them without worry.
The following list includes players expected to provide a reservoir of ability.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. firstname.lastname@example.org | @wilklogan
Not that this was a good thing, but Rowe was second on the team with 64 tackles last season.
The junior free safety has told the Deseret News’ Dirk Facer that Utah’s safeties are as good as any in the Pac-12.
“We can compete with anybody,” he said. “We’ve got athletes in the backfield and we’re ready.”
Rowe reportedly told Facer as much because he was motivated by the physical improvement seen in his colleagues between the Utes’ season-ending win over Colorado and spring camp.
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 Eric Weddle, a 2006 consensus All-American and two-time conference defensive player of the year. Both were freshman All-Americans. Rowe even manned two safety spots prior to that 2011 season and was an All Pac-12 honorable mention honoree last year.
Rowe may also receive some playing time at strong safety, which he has experienced in his first two seasons.
Carter and Morris-Edwards are fighting for the lion’s share of time at strong safety.
Carter (6-1, 213) originally signed with Cal in 2010 after being named a four-star receiver by Rivals.com and Scout.com out of Santee High (Calif.). He instead transferred to Los Angeles Southwest College reportedly due to academic problems.
Because of Carter’s immense athletic ability, it’s probably no surprise that he was a 2011 and 2012 first-team all-conference safety and the team’s leading defender last season, with 62 tackles and three interceptions.
A local player (Alta High) and former walk-on, Morris-Edwards (6-1, 200) is now seeking to transition his two starts last season (BYU, UCLA) into something greater this fall. (It’s not his only transition — he came to Utah as a receiver.) The junior played in nine total games last season, recording half of his season’s tackles with eight in that win over the Cougars. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was complementary of Morris-Edwards’ spring.
Whittingham stated early in spring ball that Carter would need to perform for Blechen to stay at linebacker. Reports of Carter meeting the challenge and of Morris-Edwards’ impressive spring means that defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake should be expected to start one of them opposite Rowe, keeping Blechen at his more uncustomary position. Blechen has made five career starts at linebacker — four in 2011 and another last season.
Whittingham has barred no public relations on this position: “We are starting over,” he told the university’s athletics department, referencing the losses of Lacy, Lee and Topps.
While Rowe has been hailed as perhaps the next Weddle, can McGill (6-3, 205) at least rise to the level of Lee, Topps or Lacy? Certainly — if the senior can overcome a Jordan Wynn-esque pattern of injury. 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 after being physically sidelined again. It’s caused a 2011 Bleacher Report projection that McGill would be Utah’s best player to look premature.
Like other cornerbacks, Thomas (5-9, 173) is young, but at least he was in Salt Lake City last year, redshirting. Dan Sorensen thinks Thomas will be the answer to the Utes’ glaring cornerback question. He was listed as a starter after spring ball heading into fall camp.
Thomas was a first-team all-district player in Orange, Texas, in 2010, during his final year of high school.
This one was a toss-up after the spring, when they reportedly played to a stand-off. Apparently Walker (5-9, 182) is OK as a free safety; he hasn’t been a prominent player in three years. If Walker takes the job, at least Smith (5-9, 189) may be an inspiration (as the Deseret News’ Brad Rock once suggested).
Walker has played in 33 games with two starts. The first 12 (in 2010) came on special teams. Smith, a junior, played on scout teams in 2011 and in two games last season.
Henderson (5-9, 185) may yet be in the mix at strong safety, pushing Carter and Morris-Edwards. The New Orleans native has played in 16 games his first two years but is best remembered as a Ute for his muffed punt return catch attempt last season late in the third quarter at Washington. It helped lead to a blowout defeat and put the struggle for Utah’s bowl eligibility on the brink.
Chappuis (5-11, 200) went from a walk-on to starting the first three games of last season in Blechen’s place, who was suspended for possession of marijuana. However, the strong safety, an Alpine native, hasn’t climbed the depth chart since. That partially may be because he missed much of the second half of last season and spring ball recovering from a concussion suffered against USC, when he got hit on the side of his head, right behind his ear. His absence since then has resulted from passing cognitive exams but initially not being able to run without concussion symptoms returning.
He related to those mourning the loss of teammate Gaius Vaenuku, posting on his Twitter account on July 30 that “there is nothing harder than losing a family member.” He’s now listed at free safety before starting at strong safety last season.
Porter (5-11, 190) joins Henderson as another Louisiana native on the defensive backfield two-deep. He showed much potential in the spring after redshirting last season. That shouldn’t be a surprise: he earned first-team 3A all-state honors from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association for leading a defense that allowed fewer than six points per game. He also earned district MVP honors as a quarterback in 2011.
As friend Jasmin Florez tweeted, “Just when I thought @DavionOrphey vanished… turns out he’s in Utah. #utes #congrats #the dream.” Orphey was set for the Football Bowl Subdivision lights in committing to BYU. But then he took a detour instead to Santa Ana College for two years before committing to the Utes, who initially competed with the Cougars for his services. Orphey (6-0, 187) was a second-team all-conference selection in 2011 (all-purpose) and 2012 (defense, safety). His Dons won the 2012 Southern California Bowl.
Whittingham has described Porter and Orphey, along with Thomas, as “gifted athletes.”
True freshman Hipolito Corporan (Westside High in Houston) should also push the group.