UCLA Football Preview: Utah's Defense Still Looks Really Tough
The Utes have had stacked defenses the last couple of seasons and they hope to continue that tradition with new faces.
The Utah Utes are coming to Pasadena on Saturday, but no one is exactly sure who they’re bringing. The team has recently had a rash of COVID-19 infections, causing Utah to cancel their season opener against Arizona and postpone this week’s contest against UCLA one day. The roster is a mystery, but one thing is for sure, Utah can bring the defense.
The Utah front men are nothing but upperclassmen including redshirt senior tackles Hauati Pututau and Viana Moala. Pututau has been with the Utes since 2014, but went on his LDS mission and returned as a redshirt in 2016. He has played in all 14 games the last two seasons and led the team in quarterback hurries last year. Moala transferred from Hawaii in 2018, sat out that season, and played in every game last year, contributing 14 tackles.
The outside men will be redshirt senior Maxs Tupai and redshirt junior Mika Tafua. Tupai and Tafua combined for 11 tackles for loss last year. So, these front men will be a force to be reckoned with. Tafua tied for the FBS lead with four fumble recoveries and had 47 tackles total last year. Tupai had his best game of 2019 against the Bruins last year, recording four tackles, with 1.5 being a loss for UCLA.
The Utah front is going to make Colorado look like a junior college and UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson could very well be running for his life. Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson was able to apply pressure and record a sack last week and this group is even more tough to beat.
The only saving grace for UCLA could be the back ups. Most of the second string is new and Utah lost key starters last year in Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini. However, the cupboard is definitely not bare.
Junior linebacker Devin Lloyd returns after an extremely successful 2019 campaign, notching 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Francis Bernard is a key piece of the 2019 Utah defense that will be missing this season, but there are plenty to fill his shoes. Redshirt junior Nephi Sewell is the only other upperclassman in this group and he only saw action in three games last year. He started his career at Nevada and is making the switch into this group after playing safety up until last year. He was a starter in the 2019 Alamo Bowl and has the potential to be extremely disruptive.
Additionally, sophomore JaTravis Broughton and freshmen Faybian Marks and Sione Fotu may get some reps depending on the state of the game. If Utah gets into garbage time, head coach Kyle Whittingham may choose to give these individuals some real playing time.
This unit was particularly depleted after 2019 with a good chunk of the Ute secondary moving on to the NFL. They are replacing top tacklers like Jaylon Johnson, Terrell Burgess, Julian Blackmon, and Javelin Guidry while senior Vonte Davis and redshirt sophomore Malone Mataele are the only guys returning from last year. A whole host of freshmen have come in to begin the rebuilding process including Clark Phillips III, Utah’s highest rated recruit in the history of the program. He enrolled early in the spring. While we all know spring camps really didn’t happen as usual this year, the mental preparation this team put in since March has him ready to go. Phillips is expected to have an immediate impact and fill the void left by losing so many starters.
Utah’s defense is second to none and they pretty much torched every offense they faced last year. While the Utes lost several key players, there are enough returning players and more up and coming guys who can replace what was lost. Again, because Utah has not released the names of players infected with COVID-19, it is impossible to know what Saturday’s game is actually going to look like. But UCLA has looked so shaky on offense that it’s hard to say the Bruins could beat Utah even if they played the Utes played their entire second string.