UTAH UTES

Taking Inventory Of Utah’s Defense With DC Morgan Scalley

Apr 20, 2023, 8:09 PM | Updated: Apr 21, 2023, 9:21 am

SALT LAKE CITY – There has been some positive buzz to end Utah’s spring ball, and it’s due to the depth the Utes appear to have on defense. Morgan Scalley, the defensive coordinator, broke it down.

Earlier in the week, Kyle Whittingham expressed optimism about the defenses’ depth as the 2023 season approaches. Scalley offered a deeper explanation into what the head coach meant.

Year in and year out the Utes typically boast a Top 25 defense with the past two seasons being no exception. However, the biggest difference with the group this season is the level of experience everyone is bringing.

Utah’s Front Seven To Secondary

Scalley couldn’t help himself when asked how his defensive group as a whole has looked now that spring ball is nearing the end, naming just about everyone and the effort they have put forward to get better.

“I’m really excited about our front,” Scalley started. “Just the development of some of our younger tackles. Obviously, we’ve got Junior, Aliki who has seen some time, but David Fotu who has come along and done some nice things. Keanu Tanuvasa is really good. We’ll have a really good rotation with that group. Then the defensive ends- probably the most depth we’ve had and athletic, athletic at that spot, so very excited about the front.”

 

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“Linebacker-wise, Karene and Lander are two seasoned dudes,” Scalley continued. “Justin Medlock has had a great spring and then you add Damuni, the transfer from Stanford and Sione Fotu who was a starter for us, coming off his mission. That group should be solid. Then the secondary- excited about that crew as well. Just the depth- Tao Johnson, he’s going to be a heck of an athlete for us. Provides some weapons at the nickel position. Scooby Davis is another kid who had a great spring and really took advantage of his reps, has to put on some more weight. Sione Vaki, Cole Bishop, John Hall at the safety position and then the outside spots. You’ve got Miles Battle who has had a very, very good spring. Zemaiah Vaughn who has gained a ton of confidence and JT Broughton.

Some Additional Info On Some Pleasant Surprises

Scalley was particularly pleased with the progress of his backup defensive tackles and linebacker Justin Medlock, noting they have all put in a lot of work to get better and it’s showed this spring.

“David Fotu, I’m really proud of him,” Scalley said. “There is a guy that was thinking about transferring and stuck it out. He’s had a heck of a spring. He’s put on the weight; he’s playing with much better technique. Keanu Tanuvasa- those backup d-tackles that are now competing for starting roles. Those guys have done a heckuva job. With Justin Medlock, there is a guy who has had the tools, it’s just putting everything together and he’s starting to do that. Excited for him and his future.”

On Nate Ritchie

Ritchie unfortunately was not a go this spring after coming back from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints mission this winter, but Scalley is confident his star safety will be good to go come fall.

“It was not something that was ultra-serious,” Scalley said. “Just something he needed time to heal, but he should be fine.”

Despite not taking the field just yet, Ritchie has already had an impact on the team from a leadership standpoint.

“He was voted to our leadership council right off his mission so he’s a guy- people respect him and what he did for the program before he went on his mission,” Scalley said. “He’s been to all of our meetings and guys have been asking him questions about the defense, so he’s been as engaged as you can be without getting reps.”

Scalley Talks About Trying To Involve Everyone

The hard truth is sometimes when you have a lot of depth, people leave. Case in point, Scalley mentioned Jadon Pearson as a standout in Wednesday’s media availability but entered the transfer portal the next day. While naturally Scalley hopes guys will stay and fight it out, he also understands some will have to go and wishes them well.

“Are those other programs going to provide the culture, experience and how much fun they have here in the development,” Scalley questioned. “You’ve got to have depth anywhere you go to win a championship and guys understand not everyone is safe. Everyone is competing and so if some guys choose to go elsewhere, I’m sure that’s just going to be part of the deal. We wish them well, but we are fired up with the guys that we’ve got.”

Utilizing The Defensive Line Depth

There is belief in the program that the Utes have some of the best defensive line talent they’ve had in a while. Scalley believes Utah has enough bodies available to them that they will be able to rotate guys in and out to keep them fresh as a game goes on, and to mitigate injuries through the season.

“We have a rep count on each of our guys,” Scalley said. “We have an understanding of kind of where that limit is to where we are asking guys to do too much. Just like last year and years previous, we’ve always done a fair amount of rotating- particularly the defensive tackle spot. When you are taking on 300 lbs. offensive linemen every single down, but now we will have the ability to have fresh defensive ends come in there and provide just as much athleticism and pressure. That’s kind of what that depth allows you to do is more rotating when you feel like you need it.”

Justin Medlock

One of the most improved players on Utah’s defense this spring has been linebacker Justin Medlock. There was a lot of buzz and excitement for Medlock when he joined the Utes in 2022, but he needed a year to put in some work, and according to Scalley, he’s done exactly that.

“Number one is what he did in the offseason in the weight room,” Scalley said. “He got a lot stronger- you can see his body composition is different. Another spring of learning and owning the defensive scheme is another thing. Just kind of what every kid you hope experiences in that development from season to season and taking advantage of a great strength staff- Doug Elisaia and his staff and a great coach in coach Swan.”

Miles Battle

It’s been a while since Utah has had a big-bodied cornerback, but Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle fits the bill at 6’4″. On top of simply providing a matchup problem due to his size, he’s also been sharp in the playbook according to Scalley, learning what he needs to know to play Utah’s defense well.

“Terminology has been the biggest thing he’s had to get used to and coach Shah has done an awesome job both teaching him the technique and giving him tools,” Scalley said. “He’s just so long levered, he provides issues for wide receivers at the line of scrimmage with as much man-coverage as we run. Coach Shah has developed him and done an amazing job of getting him to understand our defense. He’s enjoying it here. I think you saw that post yesterday- got all seasons in one day. That’s not far from Houston, Texas- they get the same deal there outside of the snow.”

Van Fillinger

Another key piece in Utah’s defense that hasn’t participated out on the field this spring is defensive end Van Fillinger. Despite his absence right now, Scalley anticipates him being back and ready to go for summer and fall.

“Van is going to be ready to go for summer workouts and fall camp,” Scalley said. “You talk about a guy that was probably our most productive defensive end last year. That’s the thing, are the guys we still have coming into this defense. Van has continued to get in the film room and study ball. Those guys who may not have gotten reps are busy doing something productive.”

Optimism Is Realistic, But High

When asked if he thinks this defense has what it takes to compete with Utah’s challenging 2023 schedule, Scalley noted several things will have to go their way, but there is confidence in the talent currently in the room to get it done.

 

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“It’s a week-to-week deal,” Scalley said. “In this league, as good of offensive power as we have, and you see you have to bring your A-game every single week. Each offense is going to provide different issues for you, so the good thing is we have the talent to be very, very competitive and do well in this league. Now it’s a matter of, do you have the leadership, do you have the depth coming out of fall camp? Fall camp is a grinder and you’ve got to come to the party healthy, but sometimes that doesn’t always happen. Got to continue to develop and get the depth we think we need.”

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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Taking Inventory Of Utah’s Defense With DC Morgan Scalley