Spring Position Battles: Defense

The Utes lose seven player on the defensive side of the ball, and with one starter changing positions, will be replacing the entire secondary. We've got your candidates, favorites, darkhorses, and projected winners at each spot...

Defensive End (Both Spots)
Candidates: Tevita Finau, Trevor Reilly, Lei Talamaivao, James Aiono, Joe Kruger, Derrick Shelby
Favorites: Shelby and Finau
Darkhorse: Reilly
Winners: Shelby and Finau

Derrick Shelby will be your starter at one spot. There's not something that can't be debated. When healthy. he's an elite player. Finau had a spot start in 2010 and should be the favorite to line up opposite Shelby, but could see some serious competition from Talamaivao, Kruger, Aiono and Reilly. Reilly has unbelievable speed coming off of the edge and is very strong for his size. We'll see how Lei Talamaivao looks in spring and whether or not he is fully heeled from his injury. Aiono is a better fit at end than tackle and will probably see time at both spots during camp, while Kruger was very impressive in 2010 as a true freshman.

Defensive Tackle
Candidates: Latu Heimuli, Star Lotulelei, James Aiono
Favorite: Lotulelei
Darkhorse: None
Winner: Lotulelei

Lotulelei played a ton last season and was hot on Dave Kruger's heels for a starting spot. He's an absolute giant who moves well, and is very disruptive. He's an all conference caliber player waiting to happen now that he's been in the program for an entire season. Hemuli was very impressive in his first year, making plays whenever given a chance. He'll have an increased role this year and could start for multiple Pac 12 teams. Aiono just doesn't have a position. He's not fast enough to be an end and not strong enough to be a tackle. We'll see what kind of dedication he had to the weight room in the offseason. If he added strength and can find the right position, he's too talented not to get reps.

Linebacker (1 spot)
Candidate: Brian Blechen
Winner: Blechen

Blechen is moving up from safety to take the place of the departed Chad Manis. No one else is going to stop that from happening. With J.J. Williams injured and Nai Fotu suspended, the linebacking starters for spring are set with Blechen joining Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez. If Fotu ever comes back and Williams ever heals completely, this could be a deep lineup.

Cornerback (Both Spots)
Candidates: Ryan Lacy, Conroy Black, Wykie Freeman, Reggie Topps, Michael Walker, Mike Honeycutt
Favorites Black and ?
Darkhorse: Freeman
Winners: Black and Lacy

Conroy Black is locked in at one spot, but opposite him is going to be a battle. Ryan Lacy is the most talented of all of the corners on the team. He's the Devonte Christopher of the defense. Just needs a kick in the butt and to get his head in the game. I think that happens starting this spring, but I can see any of the other guys winning this thing. Freeman has a wiry build but was very impressive in practice and games for a youngster last season. He'll make a serious run at one spot.

Safety (Both Spots)
Candidates: Damian Payne, Lucky Radley, Quade Chappius, Tyler Whittingham, Victor Spikes
Favorites: Payne and ?
Darkhorse: Chappius
Winners: Radley and Payne

With Chris Washington and Greg Bird out for spring and Keith McGill not arriving until the summer, the safety spot is extremely thin. Add that to Brian Blechen moving up to linebacker and the Utes are in desperate need of a youngster to step up. Spikes is more of a linebacker, but could see time at safety like he did in fall camp last year due to the lack of players. Chappius picked up playing time last year and was a solid contributor. Whittingham was mostly a special teams standout and plays more like a linebacker, but his age and maturity could be a nice fit at a position group that is so young. I still like Radley and Payne to come out of spring as the frontrunners. Both are talented guys who have huge upsides. Payne can absolutely fly and was a stud in spring ball in 2010, while Radley is going to take someone's head off. He'll hit as hard as any player his size in the Pac 12 in 2011. Get ready for the youth movement at safety.

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