Utah’s secondary building a tradition
Utes hoping new group of DBs lives up to recent legacy.
Utah is quietly growing into a defensive back factory of sorts with the Utes continuing to send cornerbacks and safeties to the NFL with regularity, including four off the 2016 roster.
The program has work to do to replace those four starters from last season, but coach Kyle Whittingham is confident in the next wave of DBs.
“I think we’re going to be as good or better in the secondary than we were last year,” Whittingham said, “as soon as this group settles in and the learning curve expires.”
That would be a feat as Utah leads the Pac-12 with 52 interceptions over the past three seasons.
The Utes currently have at least 10 defensive backs in NFL training camps, and all but four-time Pro Bowler Eric Weddle (Ravens), Sean Smith (Raiders) and Brice McCain (Titans) have entered since the 2013 season. The group also includes Keith McGill (Raiders), Jason Thompson (Patriots), Eric Rowe (Patriots), 2017 second-round pick Marcus Williams (Saints), 2017 fifth-round pick Brian Allen (Steelers) and 2017 undrafted free agents Dominique Hatfield (Rams) and Reggie Porter (Ravens).
More traditional college powers may have better numbers, but Utah is proud of its trend as the program grows, with a school-record eight players drafted in April.
Junior safety Chase Hansen (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury, is likely to be the next Utah defensive back playing on Sundays after leading the team with 90 tackles and earning an AllPac-12 honorable mention in 2016.
When healthy, he’ll be paired with junior-college transfer Corrion Ballard (6-3, 205) at safety. Defensive coaches are also already praising freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson (6-0, 181).
The cornerback position is deeper with senior Boobie Hobbs (5-10, 180), sophomore Julian Blackmon (6-1, 187), junior Casey Hughes (5-11, 185) and freshman Nygel King (6-0, 181). Safety may not have that depth, but there’s optimism surrounding sophomore Philip Afia (6-1, 195) and junior Marquise Blair (6-2, 185).
“We see things that we hadn’t seen from our other kids last year in terms of physicality, raw athleticism, acceleration,” cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said. “Kids can flat-out run. We were good last year, but we gave up too many deep balls.
“A lot of youth breeds a lot of competition. You’re getting a better athlete to join the program because of the success we’ve had on the field and in the NFL.”
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said recruiting is the key to avoiding a decline after losing so many starters in the defensive backfield, but that’s easier said than done. Utah has only been in the Pac-12 since 2011 and still doesn’t have the cachet of more traditional powers around the country.
Scalley thinks athletes are noticing Utah’s pipeline to the NFL.
“We’ve got to be able to use that to our advantage,” Scalley said. “In the recruiting game, we do. We sell that.” 2. Applause for the Rangers for admitting what they were — an average team 5½ games back in the AL wild-card race — and looking to the future. Good move to deal fading catcher Jonathan Lucroy along with four-time AllStar Darvish, who has been anything but ace-like lately, for three prospects, all ranked in the Dodgers’ top 30, including second baseman Willie Calhoun, who will be groomed as an outfielder. Wish they had moved Adrian Beltre as well. It also doesn’t look as though Texas will re-sign Darvish, who will be a free agent, in the offseason. 3. Tom Herman made the Longhorn players lounge off limits because, well, it was messy. I love it because this is how he is fighting entitlement. He’s had $8,700 lockers installed in the Texas dressing room, which smells of entitlement for a program that’s produced three straight seven-loss seasons, but this is how Herman combats it. “If we give you nice things, you need to treat those things well,” Herman said. Yeah, it may be a small punishment, but it sends the right message. In fact, P.J. Locke’s missing water bottle (for which he was punished in the middle of the night with up-downs in the stadium and cleanup duty in the weight room) and his subsequent Formula 409 bottle are this year’s versions of Charlie Strong’s ping pong table. ... Did you see that Clemson hired a sleep coach? I guess a mini-golf course inside the football facility wasn’t enough. While Dabo Swinney hired a sleep specialist to improve the Tigers’ slumber, Texas players wear fatigue monitors that tell them when they will run out of energy. And Texas considered putting in a firemen’s pole if the players lounge ended up below the dressing room. 4. Hooray for the Chicago Cubs. They finally did right by Steve Bartman, the most famous (infamous, some Cubs fans would say) baseball fan since the Yankees’ Jeffrey Maier. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts gave the beleaguered Bartman his own official World Series championship ring. Bartman, you’ll remember, had his life turned upside down when in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Marlins, he deflected a foul ball that Cubs left fielder Moises Alou was attempting to catch. Never mind that several other fans reached for the ball as well, and even had Alou caught the ball, it would have been only the second out of the eighth inning of a game the Cubs eventually lost 8-3 after they gave up eight runs in that inning. Bartman has been in virtual hiding ever since because of some shameful behavior by those looking for a scapegoat, including idiots who posted his home address, identified his workplace and threatened him. One Chicago columnist said Bartman should wear the ring on his middle finger. 5. Jerry Jones deservedly gets inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week, completing a journey he himself traces back to the days when his mom first put a bowtie on him at the age of 9 and had him greeting customers at the front of the family store in North Little Rock, Ark. “Learned to be positive, the customer was first,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Clarence Hill. There, Jones sold ice cream, Christmas trees and watermelons — all on commission. There’s been no better businessman in NFL history than Jerry, but I wonder if his Hall of Fame bio will include that Jones was a horrible general manager? 6. Former Longhorns outfielder Travis Jones is tearing it up in the Kansas City Royals organization and already has been promoted twice in two months. He started in the Arizona League where he hit .485 in nine games. He was promoted to Burlington and hit .391 in seven rookie-ball games before moving up to Idaho Falls in the top rookie league, where he hit .375 in 11 games. Jones was drafted as a utility player and so far has played right and left field as well as first base and third base. His former teammate, first baseman Kacy Clemens, is hitting .265 with three homers and 26 RBI in 34 games with the rookie-level Vancouver Canadians. Second baseman Bret Boswell has six homers for the Boise Hawks, and pitcher Morgan Cooper is expected to throw his first bullpen session this week. Also, pitcher John Curtiss is on fire in Triple-A, posting five saves and a 2.57 ERA, and could get a September call-up to the Twins. 7. How does Billy Beane keep his job as the Oakland A’s executive veep? I loved the “Moneyball” movie and all, but jeepers, his A’s are never any good. “This is my 20th year on the job,” he said in midJuly. “There’s only so many (rebuilding) cycles that I can go through before I get as exasperated as everybody else.” 8. Resurrecting the scattershooting portion of the program to pay homage to the inimitable late Blackie Sherrod, and counting on reader feedback for enlightenment. Duckshooting doesn’t sound right. Perhaps Meandering while wondering whatever happened to Marty Cherry. 9. Saw “The Big Sick” on Sunday night. It’s the best movie I’ve seen all year. Terrific comedy/ drama — a dramedy perhaps? — with excellent supporting performances by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Great writing, too. You’ll hate yourself for laughing at Kumail’s 911 line in the cafeteria. Gave it nine ducks. C razy prediction: The Columbus Crew MLS franchise will seriously consider relocating to Austin before deciding against it.
There’s been no better businessman in NFL history than Jerry Jones, but will his Hall of Fame bio include that he was a lousy general manager?