Utah Preview: UCLA Offense vs. Utah Defense

Utah may have the best front four UCLA has faced this year, but the Utes will need it to be dominant due to youth in the secondary...

Utah has built a reputation over the last several years under Kyle Whittingham for having stout defensive units, and UCLA fans need look no further than last year to see the evidence of that, when a middling Utah team held the Bruins to 21 points in Pasadena. There was an expectation, though, that there would be some dropoff with the loss of top defensive lineman Star Lotuleilei from last year, but, at least on the defensive front line, that hasn't been the case.

The Utes run a bit of a hybrid 4-3, with senior linebacker/end Trevor Reilly (6'5, 255) rushing the passer or dropping into coverage depending on the formation and personnel. Reilly has spent more time as a pure defensive end this year than he did last year, though, and has developed into a good edge rusher, with two sacks and 6 tackles for loss through the first four games of the year. He has an excellent motor, frequently giving offensive tackles fits with his relentless energy. It's shocking, really, that he is a former walkon, given that he may be Utah's best defensive player this year.
Linebacker Trevor Reilly.

He'll be challenged for that title, though, by another couple of players on the defensive front. Junior Nate Orchard (6'3, 255), who lines up on the opposite side from Reilly, has considerable athleticism, and presents a bit of a mismatch for slower offensive tackles. He has 3.5 tackles for loss this season, but was very disruptive in the opener against Utah State, logging three during that game alone. Senior Tenny Palepoi (6'2, 300), who mans one of the defensive tackle positions, would be another candidate for MVP of the front four. Despite playing inside, he leads the team in sacks this year, looking like a more than suitable replacement for Lotuleilei with a good, explosive first step. At the other tackle spot, Utah has had a bit more fluctuation, with senior LT Tuipulotu (6'1, 305) and sophomore Viliseni Fauonuku (5'11, 285) each starting games this year. The Utes replaced both interior starters from last year, and have only seen a minor dropoff in play this year, which is a credit to the coaching they've received.

The further you move into the back of the defense, though, the more you see some cracks. Though the Utes have replaced their interior linemen well from a year ago, they've had a tougher time replacing their secondary. Like UCLA, the Utes lost almost their entire starting secondary from a year ago. The lone returning starter, junior Eric Rowe (6'1, 205), once again mans the free safety spot, but after that, the secondary has been questionable. At one cornerback spot, the Utes have started senior Keith McGill (6'3, 205) in each of the first four games. McGill is a converted safety who sat out the entirety of last year, and has looked rusty through the early going, allowing a few big plays in particular against Oregon State. The Utes have had some fluctuation at the other cornerback position, starting both junior Davlon Orphrey (6'0, 187) and freshman Reginald Porter (5'11, 190) at various points this year. Starting senior strong safety Michael Walker (5'9, 182) has some experience, playing considerably throughout each of his first three years in the program. A career backup, he has questionable size for the position.

When Reilly plays end, the Utes will often drop into a nickel package, with the nickel back playing more of a defensive back role than as the box safety in UCLA's scheme, for a point of reference. Both freshman Justin Thomas (5'9, 173) and senior Mike Honeycutt (5'10, 181) have seen time in that role. It's a virtual guarantee that with the amount of three and four wide receiver sets UCLA will likely throw at Utah that the Utes will play in the nickel package for much of the game.

As we said above, when Reilly plays end, Utah typically does without a third linebacker, instead opting for an extra defensive back. At the other two linebacker positions, Utah has recently gone with sophomore Jared Norris (6'1, 230) at middle linebacker and sophomore Jason Whittingham (6'2, 240) at the other outside position. Norris had a huge game against BYU, and has shown versatility between the different linebacker positions so far this year. Whittingham took over for Norris after Norris flipped to middle ‘backer against Oregon State.

Scheme-wise, the Utes have used some considerable pressure at points this year, particularly against Oregon State, when the pressure wasn't very effective against Sean Mannion. With the trouble that Utah has had against passing attacks, you might expect that the Utes will opt for more of a conservative scheme as the Pac-12 season really gets underway.

Offensively, UCLA has put up some outstanding numbers to start the year, with the Bruins ranking 3rd in the country with an average of over 52 points per game. Although the competition, outside of Nebraska, has mostly been of the patsy variety, the amount of production for the offense still represents a pretty massive step forward for UCLA in its second year of Noel Mazzone's scheme.

Much of the success can be attributed to a drastically improved offensive line. How the UCLA offensive line would look was one of the biggest questions heading into fall camp and, largely, we didn't have a very good answer after camp was over. Through three games, though, it's pretty easy to say that the offensive line is already improved from where it was last year. Much of the improvement, shockingly, has come from the addition of true freshman offensive guard Alex Redmond. Redmond has fit seamlessly into the unit after really only practicing for a week during fall camp, and he's been arguably UCLA's offensive MVP through each of the first three games, showing off a mean streak to go along with impressive balance and strength.

Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jake Brendel have also been impressive on the interior of the line, rarely allowing much of a threat to creep into Brett Hundley's field of vision. Su'a-Filo has picked up where he left off last year, using his impressive agility to get out in front of running plays and take on multiple defenders. UCLA switched its tackles last week, flipping Torian White to left tackle and Simon Goines to right tackle, and through one game it looked like a successful move. Goines has been hampered by knee trouble which has limited his mobility on the blind side, and White has looked improved from where he was last year. Working in at right tackle is true freshman Caleb Benenoch, who will likely be the first sub off the bench at both tackle and guard.
Xavier Su'a-Filo.

Not to pick nits, but if there's been an issue with the offense so far this year, it's actually been Brett Hundley. Hundley has been very far from bad this year, and you might even make an argument that he's playing better than he did last year, when he had the best season for a UCLA quarterback since 2005. So, call him a victim of high expectations, then, since there have been some nits to pick so far this season. Against New Mexico State, he made a few very poor decisions throwing the ball into traffic, with his second interception a really bad read of the safety coming underneath the throw. He's also made misreads in the zone running game at times, holding the ball when he should hand off and handing the ball off when he should run. Statistically, he's put together a big year already, but against tougher defenses going forward, he'll likely see a dip unless he can clean up a few of his bigger issues.

The running game has been strong, which is largely attributed to the improved play for the offensive line. It'd be an oversight, though, to not give some of the credit to Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, and Malcolm Jones. Manfro, in particular, had a huge game last week against New Mexico State, probably his best game as a Bruin. He scored as both a receiver and a running back, and also had a 70 yard kick return. James has been solid all year, and looked better as a North-South runner, which is helped by the holes being opened by the offensive line. Perkins also broke out a bit against the Aggies, catching several swing passes out of the backfield for first downs.

The big news for UCLA is that Damien Thigpen will return this week for the first time since tearing his ACL against USC last year. If Thigpen is 100% healthy and ready, he provides a pass-catching threat out of the backfield that really doesn't exist at this point. Last year, he was devastating on wheel routes and swing passes, to the point where defenses had to account for it whenever he was in the game, which helped to open up the intermediate passing game.

At receiver, UCLA has a variety of weapons, with Shaquelle Evans having developed a pretty significant connection with Brett Hundley. Devin Fuller had a bit of a breakout game against New Mexico State. If Hundley had been a bit more on the money, Fuller easily could have had 100+ yards and three touchdowns. Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien, Darius Bell, and a veritable cast of thousands fill out the receiver rotation with a variety of high quality possession receivers.


Utah's defense is decent, despite what the overall statistics indicate, and probably the best that UCLA has faced this year. The defensive front has a better chance of standing up against UCLA's offensive line than any line they've faced this year. That's good for the Utes, because with the secondary struggling against the one major passing attack they've faced this year, they'll likely need to generate a pass rush with just their front four to have much success against UCLA.

The Bruins have some obvious factors in their favor. First, UCLA's stable of receivers probably has a significant advantage over Utah's inexperienced secondary. If Utah elects to pressure heavily, UCLA also has a very good dumpoff receiver in Fuller, who can make significant gains off of slants and drags. Second, UCLA has a quarterback in Hundley who has shown a propensity for bouncing back from poor performances, which is what we'd term his game against New Mexico State.

Last year, UCLA went to a very conservative gameplan against the Utes in the wake of Hundley's four interception disaster against California, eking out a 21-14 win over Utah behind 47 carries from the running game. Hundley didn't have as miserable a statistic performance against New Mexico State as he had against Cal, though, so we'd have to suspect that UCLA won't drastically change the plan for Utah this year.

It's going to be interesting, though. Outside of perhaps the paper tiger in Nebraska, UCLA hasn't faced a real defense, and it'll be very interesting to see how the offense runs now that the Bruins are headed into Pac-12 play.

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