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Utah football: Sub-par defense in practice showing leads to frustration

August 17, 2016 GMT

Since Signing Day in February, there has been buzz about how the Utes have signed one of their best recruiting classes under Kyle Whittingham.

By Wednesday morning, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah had heard enough of that.

“These kids are highly recruited kids, four and five stars,” he said, his voice rising. “They’ve been heralded as the next-best — well then, show us. Stop climbing in a cave, and let’s go. I’m looking for who is their own self-starter.”

Shah’s emotions bubbled over after what was deemed a frustrating practice for the second-team defense. In the 20 minute media session, freshman quarterback Tyler Huntley beat coverage for touchdown passes to Kyle Fulks and Caleb Repp.

While Whittingham lauded Huntley for making plays in the passing game, he thought the defense was not particularly sharp on Wednesday, which Shah echoed. The coaches said mental lapses have been a problem, particularly for newcomers.

“We’ve put in almost all of the defense, now it’s time to become masters at the defense,” he said. “There’s a million cut-ups. Everybody has an opportunity to see a playbook. There’s more and more ways to become students of this game, and we’re not seeing it getting done with the twos.”

Utah’s first rotation of cornerbacks has been solid: Reggie Porter, Justin Thomas, Dominique Hatfield and Brian Allen (all seniors) haven’t officially “won” jobs, but they’ve done nothing to diminish their standing as the unit’s top performers. While the Utes have seen promise from newcomers Terrell Burgess and Nygel King, they’re ready to start seeing more mastery of scheme.

And yet even the top performers are trying to avoid complacency.

“We know how our rotation and all that is, and I think we’re solid,” Porter said. “We don’t have no animosity. We’re all brothers, and we’re just working.”

Barton back on top

At linebacker, the coaching staff has pushed sophomore Cody Barton as a rising stock thanks to his understanding of schemes compared to junior college newcomer Kavika Luafatasaga.

The Brighton product assumed a starting spot this spring when Utah was light at the position. But even then, there was some projecting that he wouldn’t hold onto a first-string job once the Utes were infused with new talent.

One of Utah’s signees, Kurtis Taufa from Snow College, didn’t academically qualify for the semester. Luafatasaga has “hit a wall” in both scheme and conditioning, according to Whittingham, after arriving in mid-July. Barton, meanwhile, kept doing what he was doing.

“You hear a lot of things about guys coming in, and they’re obviously going to get that shot,” he said. “But in the end, we’re all humans. Whoever works the hardest and whoever makes the plays is going to come out on top.”

Teammates and coaches have catalogued Barton’s compulsive tendencies: He’s managed to gain at least 40 pounds since Utah first offered him a scholarship in 2014 through obsession with his nutrition, and Whittingham describes him as the film junkie of the defense. That attention to detail has helped make him one of the top two linebackers again this fall.

That, and perhaps a little extra motivation.

“I think Cody kind of heard a lot that there were some good guys coming in,” senior end Hunter Dimick said. “He’s been working his butt off — not that he wasn’t before, but a little bit extra. Learning his assignments. It’s really phenomenal how much better he’s gotten.”

Running back room finding order

Out of Tuesday’s scrimmage, the Utes have established senior Joe Williams as the top running back, with junior Troy McCormick as the backup. The third back, Whittingham said, will be likely decided between freshman Zack Moss and JC transfer Armand Shyne.

McCormick, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury last year, said this year’s group seems particularly strong.

“Zack Moss is looking good, he’s a very powerful back,” he said. “Devonta’e Henry-Cole is a shifty, quicker back. Shyne can get downhill on you, Marcel [Manalo] can get downhill on you. We’ve got a lot of different types of guys.”

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon