Utah’s sec­ondary build­ing a tra­di­tion

Utes hop­ing new group of DBs lives up to re­cent legacy.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS -

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.

MICHAEL OWEN BAKER / AP

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?

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