Utah heads into the off-season with several questions to be answered on the defensive side of the ball. While Utah loses just two players on offense, the defense has to replace six starters and a few key backups. Incoming freshman, junior college transfers, and players from within the program will all be counted on to step up and contribute to the defense in 2007. Some players have moved from offense and are already making an impact.
Much has been made of the move of RJ Stanford and Sean Smith to cornerback. The move of the two offensive players occurred in the week leading to the game against rival BYU, as Utah had lost two players in the secondary and needed numbers. There is also the chance that the moves would have occurred in the offseason anyway considering the graduating players (Eric Weddle, Eric Shyne, and Shaun Harper were all senior corners in 2006) and the value placed on the corner position by head coach Kyle Whittingham and Andersen.
"Corners are so hard to find, that if you have someone you can move over there that you think can play corner, we're always going to make that move," Andersen said.
Smith is currently penciled in to start at corner, along with Brice McCain. Both Smith and Stanford have adjusted to the move and are excited about playing this athletically and mentally demanding position. That hasn't stopped fans from speculating about further moves, especially for Smith. Many have wondered about Smith's size (6-foot-3, 210-pounds) being better suited for safety. Coach Andersen says that Smith will remain at corner, and be successful at it. Smith is a very gifted athlete who has everything it takes to succeed at the corner spot: good speed, great footwork, the ability to use his size and length to jam receivers. Many offenses today utilize quick timing patterns, especially when facing a man coverage team like Utah. Having a big, physical corner with long arms and the ability to turn and run with most receivers disrupts that timing and can cause problems with the passing game. "Smith is a tailor-made guy, a perfect fit. We're excited about his abilities," Andersen said.
Replacing players in the secondary isn't the only concern of the coaching staff, as Utah faces the daunting task of replacing three starters on the defensive line - starting defensive tackles Kelly Talavou and Paul Soliai as well as starting end Soli Lefiti. Competition to replace those three will be fierce, and in some cases has already begun.
Several young players will be competing at the two tackle spots, but heading into spring Gabe Long and Kenepe Eliapo will be the starters. From there, it will be wide open with Neli A'asa, Zeke Wily, and Casey Sutera competing for playing time.
"They will all be in the mix, and we'll see how it all falls out," Andersen said about the interior linemen. The projected depth chart at tackle will not be as big or as experienced as Utah has been in the past, but that challenge excites Coach Andersen.
"Every year is different," Andersen said. "Now I can kind of go back to the roots of defensive front play and work these kids hard. I'm excited. I feel good about them and I expect to have four good players by the time we line up to play a football game."
Two players who were not on the Utes roster a year ago will compete with Greg Newman for the starting base end spot. Koa Misi, a mid-year junior college transfer, and recently returned missionary Paul Kruger will both be at Utah for spring camp. Newman, a former transfer from Colorado, is expected to open spring as the starter with Kruger and Misi splitting reps. The starting spot here might not be decided until fall camp.
"I think we've really solidified ourselves with three kids here. I feel good about them," said Andersen. Another returned missionary that the Utah coaches are excited about is Isley Filiaga. However, since Filiaga played at BYU before his LDS mission, conference transfer rules apply and Filiaga has to sit out the 2007 season and will be eligible to play in 2008.
The one spot Utah is set at is linebacker. Utah does not lose any players from last year to graduation, but J.J. Williams will leave on his LDS mission. Williams started several games last season. Utah returns a lot of experience in the linebackers, with four seniors and a sophomore who started games as a true freshman. Senior Joe Jiannoni returns at MAC for his third season as a starter, backed up by fellow senior Loma Olevao. The strong side spot will come down to a pair of seniors in Kyle Brady and Malakai Mokofisi. The other linebacker spot is expected to be manned by sophomore Stevenson Sylvester, with Brady playing some there as well. Utah will want to take advantage of that experience in whatever way possible, included possibly some sets with four of them on the field at once. "We'll get the best guys on the field, and maybe sometimes we'll try to get all four (Sylvester, Jiannoni, Brady, and Mokofisi) on the field at the same time.
Speculation about Coach Andersen's job status has also crept up this season, not due to poor performance but due to possible promotions. Andersen interviewed for and then withdrew from the head coach position at Idaho State. Coach Andersen is appreciative of the offer and the opportunity Idaho State presented, but just did not feel that it was the right time for him to leave Utah. Will Andersen be leaving Utah anytime soon? "If I can walk into Coach Whittingham's office and he can tell me it is a great offer, a great opportunity for me and my family, and that I can't turn it down, that's what it would take for me to leave. But I've still got a lot of work to do here." Andersen said.