Utah held their first scrimmage of spring practices in cold, windy conditions Friday. The 110 play session lasted just over two hours and covered a variety of situations for the team to work through. Utah's offense stole the show, moving the ball well through the air on the Utah defense as the passing game rolled up 435 yards and six touchdowns.
"I thought the offense did a nice job taking care of the football, very few penalties," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Defensively we tackled well. Didn't do a good job pressuring the quarterback but offensively we did a good job protecting. We've got a lot to work on but we're making progress."
Utah's offense focused more on the passing game and getting their receivers a great deal of work. The Utes threw the ball 54 times in the 85-play "live" segment of the scrimmage, and 11 different players caught a pass. Utah ran the ball 31 times for 110 yards and a touchdown.
Utah's defense had a hard time getting pressure with four pass rushers and a rather vanilla scheme, though Joape Pela, Neli A'asa, and Chaz Walker all got to the quarterback. A'asa continued his strong spring play, recording a half-sack and knocking down a pair of passes at the line-of-scrimmage. Utah will really need the senior to play well in the fall as Pela left the scrimmage with a right knee injury.
"Neli has been around the program a long time, and has always been nagged by some injury," Whittingham said. "Now he's healthy, he's dropped some weight, and is looking good."
Chad Manis also had a strong showing, recording a tackle-for-loss to go along with his solid overall play against the run. Manis also played extremely well in coverage against backs and tight ends and looks to be a complete linebacker. The former quarterback is completely adjusted to defense and is enjoying his chance to contribute to his team. "Everything," Manis said about what he enjoys most on defense. "The hitting, the emotion that the defense brings. This defense, especially this year, everyone is a family, everyone is together, everyone loves to be out here to support each other, and that's the best part about being on defense."
The secondary is a position of particular interest, as the Utes are replacing three of four starters. Justin Taplin-Ross is playing extremely well and has solidified himself as a starting safety. Taplin-Ross had a strong scrimmage and showed an improved ability as an "in-the-box" safety, tackling well and coming up in run support. The emphasis on the pass and the lack of pressure gave the back seven plenty of opportunities to make plays. J.J. Williams, Lamar Chapman, and Bryce Bennion all missed chances to intercept passes.
Greg Bird and Damain Payne played the most at free safety, with Bird working with the first team defense in the scrimmage. Neither stood out, which is not necessarily a bad thing, though each was just a step late on some plays. The battle for the starting free safety spot will continue in the fall when the Utes will add several players to the mix. True freshman Brian Blechen - a high school quarterback and safety - will join the team as a safety in the fall. Chris Washington will miss the rest of spring after sitting out several practices with an injury but will be ready for the fall. Victor Spikes could also return to safety after spending the spring at running back. Spikes will stay on offense throughout spring practices and then the staff will re-evaluate Spikes and decide on a permanent position.
Brandon Burton is the lone returning starter in the secondary and looks to be an All-Conference caliber corner. Chapman and Conroy Black have appeared to separate from the pack for the other starting corner spot, with Chapman in the lead. Both Chapman and Black had some good moments in the scrimmage, but each has a lot of work to do. Chapman is a solid cover corner, especially inside against slot receivers. Black has the size, speed, and athleticism to be an excellent corner but he needs experience after redshirting in the 2009 season.
One area of concern for the Utes is offensive red-zone efficiency. Last season Utah scored just 26 touchdowns in 49 red-zone chances, a number that the staff wanted to improve in the spring. The first team offense was very efficient in red-zone drills, scoring two touchdowns on four plays - the first on an 11-yard pass from Jordan Wynn to Luke Matthews (officially credited to Jereme Brooks) and the second on a 12-yard screen pass to Sausan Shakerin on the first play in the series. Wynn completed all four of his red-zone passes while Terrance Cain struggled, missing on all six of his attempts. Cain redeemed himself in the two-minute offense, leading the second unit down the field before throwing a 5-yard touchdown toss to DeVonte Christopher.
Utah went into the scrimmage looking to find out about their players on both sides of the ball, particularly the inexperienced receivers and secondary, before starting to solidify the depth chart. The Utes will return to practice next week and will focus on finishing the final half of spring the way the ended the first - on a strong and positive note.