Even In A ‘Down’ Year, Utah’s Defense Is Still Dominant

Nov 2, 2022, 10:07 AM


Elliss coaching up his defensive line. The Utes have a proud history of strong defensive tackle play that dates back to Elliss' time as a player. (Photo Courtesy of Utah Athletics.)

(Photo Courtesy of Utah Athletics.)

SALT LAKE CITY- A lot has been made about the Utes’ defense in 2022 and for good reason. There has been a standard set over the last 30-plus years and this season hasn’t been the cleanest rendition fans have ever seen of a historically great unit. However, even in a so called “down” year, Utah’s defense has been dominant, and the coaches and players are positive about where the unit could go in the future.

“It’s been a year of a little bit of ups and downs, but when you look at the numbers- we are number one in the league in total defense,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of the defense. “Apparently other people are struggling more than we are. I thought we’ve played- when you judge the season as a whole to this point, I think we’ve done a really nice job defensively.”

Taking A Look At Utah’s Defense

Whittingham isn’t wrong about Utah’s defense. They have been dominant in several statistical categories despite not “looking” the way fans are used to. The Utes rank number one in the Pac-12 in 4th down conversion defense, first down defense, passing yards allowed, punt return defense, and total defense.

They are second in the league in third down conversion defense, scoring defense, and turnovers gained. The Utes currently are the only team in the Pac-12 and one of six Power Five teams to rank in the top-30 nationally in both total offense and defense. While Utah has been far from perfect in 2022, they also could be much worse is basically what the numbers are saying of the young unit.

Getting Better Every Week

Utah also appears to be getting better every week on the defensive side of the ball. While a lot of focus was put on the fact the Utes allowed USC to put up a lot of yards and points almost four weeks ago, what wasn’t talked a lot about was their four sacks on Caleb Williams- something no other team had managed to do in 2022.

Last week, Utah’s defense really helped to carry the team against Washington State posting four more sacks in the game and pressuring Cam Ward all night long into making hurried decisions. Team captain Clark Phillips III says he’s noticed strides being made in the unit, particularly when it comes to being assignment sound and making necessary tackles.

“Tackling- I think we’ve gotten better at tackling,” Phillips III said. “It was an emphasis after certain games and this last week I felt like we showed that.”


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Defensive lineman Junior Tafuna agreed that confidence amongst the unit is beginning to grow as guys have a better understanding of what they each need to do individually to make the whole thing go. The game against Wazzu last week was particularly satisfying for the group being able to keep a mobile quarterback like Ward under control for most of the game.

“The past couple of games we haven’t played our best,” Tafuna said. “It was a great way to have fun again- to go back and play assignment sound football. It was great to play that way and we’re going to try to keep that rolling.”

Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said it’s all about trusting the process and the coaches going forward.

“I feel like we are playing good ball,” Diabate said. “We had a good game last week and we have to keep that in mind. We can’t think about last week, we have to think about Arizona and just do the same process. Keep trusting the coaches and we’ll be ok.”

Looking Toward The Future

Utah’s defense should return a large number of starters next season as a good chunk of the unit consists of freshmen and sophomores this year. Looking at the growth from the beginning of the season to now, and how guys could project into the 2023 season, defensive line coach Luther Elliss sees a very bright future for the Utah defense.

“I’m very excited about the future and even the rest of the year this year,” Elliss said. “I think guys every week get better and better understanding how to do things. Understanding quote-on-quote how to be a professional. Even at this level now you have to be well-prepared. It’s not just- forgive me- a kid’s game. It’s a game you have to take and really spend the extra time like coach tells us all the time. You have to prepare, you have to watch that film, and just what you believe about yourself. I believe the guys are understanding that more and more, and getting it done.”


Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports

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Even In A ‘Down’ Year, Utah’s Defense Is Still Dominant