Monday Rewind: Can Utah's defense actually be better in 2022? It's not crazy to think so
Welcome back to the Monday Rewind. Hope the weekend was good to you. Let’s dive in.
Can Utah’s defense actually be better in 2022?
Karene and Gabe Reid grew up in a BYU household in Provo, learning football from a BYU alum. For both to end up at Utah is pretty remarkable. Karene recruited Gabe from Stanford to Utah this offseason. Both linebackers, they’ll pair up on the defensive side of the ball hoping to help the Utes repeat as Pac-12 champions in 2022.
On a new podcast the brothers are hosting for AllUtes, Gabe shared a little insight into why he chose the Utes once he went into the transfer portal:
“Utah is a defensive school,” he said. “Obviously the offense is great, but when I think of Utah, I think of defense. Nasty. Playing hard. I think of sacks, dudes getting after the quarterback. That’s something personally that I love to do … and I didn’t get to showcase that last year.
“Utah is going to be the perfect scheme for me to let loose.”
No team in the conference had more sacks than Utah’s 42, and no team in the league had more TFLs than Utah’s 98. In terms of creating havoc, few were better than the Utes. They finished 12th nationally with a havoc rate (TFLs, passes defended, and forced fumbles) of 20.3% on defense.
Mika Tafua and Devin Lloyd were a big part of that. Lloyd finished the year with a Pac-12-leading 22 tackles for loss. Tafua had 13, the third-best mark in the league. Both need replacing this upcoming season.
But Karene said he thinks they can be better still.
“I think we have the potential to be better than last year,” he said. “I know that’s a bold statement to make but with the people we have coming back and the pieces we’re adding, we shouldn’t have a weak spot… we’ll be nasty.”
What would that look like? What would it take for Utah to post a better defensive season in 2022 than it did in 2021? It’s not an absurd statement when you look at the talent on hand.
Utah has some proven commodities in the secondary with safety Cole Bishop and corner Clark Phillips III. The Utes’ coaching staff couldn’t say enough good things about Bishop during the spring, and Phillips has a chance to cement himself as one of the best corners in the country next season.
On the defensive line, Junior Tafuna and Van Fillinger have tremendous upside. Tafuna, a 6-foot-3 defensive tackle, earned the Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year award last season after posting 33 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, and 4.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. Fillinger is a player I’m super high on going into the new season. After posting 9.5 tackles for loss as a second-year man last season, getting legitimately better with each passing week, the defensive end should take another step toward becoming an every-snap terror.
At linebacker, Utah has serious depth—the Reid brothers, Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, freshmen early enrollees Lander Barton and Justin Medlock. The Reids have experience. Diabate has plus athleticism and legitimate pro potential. Barton was one of the best linebacker prospects in the 2022 class and made good on that pedigree immediately once he showed up on campus.
If you want to replace an all-time kind of player—Lloyd and Tafua fit the bill—having this kind of depth is a pretty nice place to start.
Based on what Utah wants to do, it’s hard not to get excited about the potential. There are so many pieces in that front seven. Utah should be athletic, versatile, and dangerous. Better than last season? Someone needs to take the big step. Is it September yet?
USC’s backcourt is back, but guard questions remain
In Andy Enfield’s quest for respect—something his USC program is due, to be clear—first halves like the one it put on display for the country to see in its opening-round NCAA Tournament game against Miami last March won’t do much to move the needle.
USC turned it over 12 times and shot less than 30% from the field in the game’s first 20 minutes. Folks who were watching switched the channel. Some never flipped back to catch USC’s near comeback. The first 20 minutes of that game, and to a large degree the way it clawed back into it over the final 20 minutes, highlighted the thing still holding this program back from really taking off.
If you watch Arizona, you saw Dalen Terry and Kerr Kriisa initiating the offense and getting the Wildcats into a groove and settling things when they get a little jostled.
If you watch UCLA, you see Tyger Campbell hitting big shots and settling things. Bruin coach Mick Cronin spoke after the Bruins’ first-round tourney win over Akron about a lockstep relationship with his point guard and a game-long search to try and find a counter to what the Akron defense was taking away from them.
When I watch USC, I don’t see that same kind of player.
Isaiah Mobley was wonderful to watch, one of the most skilled big men in college basketball. But unless you have a collection of elite 3-point shooters surrounding a generational kind of passer, an offense constructed around a passing big man is going to have its limitations.
USC played one non-shooter (Chevez Goodwin) with Mobley. Boogie Ellis, after a hot-shooting Pac-12 Tournament run, scored three points on 1-of-6 shooting against Miami and was benched in the second half for Ethan Anderson. Anderson proved capable of filling the kind of role USC needs, but his shot was shaky throughout the year and he’s since entered the portal.
Drew Peterson showed off a clutch factor late in games toward the end of the season and averaged 3.3 assists a game, but he’s not a point. Ellis is a score-first guard. Giving a guy like Reese Dixon-Waters or a guy like Kobe Johnson more playmaking responsibilities could turn out to just be a band-aid over the problem. Letting Ellis (3.3 assists per 40 minutes last season) play next to a pure point would help his game quite a bit. Turning Dixon-Waters into a full-time distributor might not feel much different from what USC tried to do with Ellis this season.
As the Trojans faltered down the stretch, turnovers and bad offense became the defining characteristics. They can change that pretty quickly via the transfer portal. And now that Enfield has more clarity on what his roster will look like, perhaps the USC staff is a little more intentional in seeking out more guard help from the portal.
The Trojans are in on Illinois grad transfer Jacob Grandison, a 6-foot-6 guard with a 17.9% assist rate last year. USC could play smaller thanks to Peterson’s length and defensive attention, throwing out four guards who can all take a defender off the dribble. That would help, too.
Enfield’s squad doesn’t need major changes, just a missing piece. And even then, the Trojan head coach has shown an ability to maximize the talent available to him and make things work. The incoming recruiting class has pieces to reload the frontcourt. Vince Iwuchukwu (5-star center) and Kijani Wright (4-star forward) could see major roles right away.
Getting Ellis and Peterson back for next season is undoubtedly huge for Enfield. That’s 25 points a game right there, complete with playmaking and shot-creation. Now the fun part begins: how does Enfield work this roster to put those two in the best position to be successful? To me, that means adding a floor general to play alongside them and steady things when they’re off the floor. Easier said than done. These next few months—either from a development or acquisition standpoint—will be interesting.
Oregon or Miami? One agent makes it pretty clear which he prefers
The Athletic shared what amounted to an agent confidential recently, asking coaching agents to dish on what was a wild carousel. The Mario Cristobal discourse made headlines, as several questioned either his ability or his decision-making. The latter was rather interesting.
“I think that Miami made a great hire in Mario, but I’m not sure if Mario Cristobal made a great move in going from Oregon to Miami. I think that Oregon is substantially better positioned because of Phil Knight and Nike and their infrastructure to be successful over the long horizon of what college sports may look like over the next decade than Miami. He’s basically in a rebuilding situation at Miami, and at an institution that has resources but will never have the same resources or fan support that Oregon has.”
This is a Miami program we’re talking about that has never shied away from investing big in its football program, be it by completely above-board means or … others. The ‘Canes have real estate in the ever-important recruiting hotbed of the southeast. They have mega-boosters throwing major stacks at athletes all throughout the athletic department; John Ruiz has a NIL portfolio that rolls more than 100 players deep at this point.
Oregon is better positioned for long-term success than that?
Oregon isn’t making NIL headlines the way Miami and Ruiz are, but make no mistake, the Ducks aren’t hurting in this new environment. And several recruits who have been out to see what first-year coach Dan Lanning’s progrum is all about have said it feels like the SEC of the West.
That moniker works on a number of fronts. Oregon cleans up in Washington, a nationally under-the-radar but still very-talent-rich region. It has California to the south. If Lanning is going to pull in SEC kids—blue-chip running backs in the 2022 and 2023 classes, with a bevy of blue-chip visitors on the way this month—the Ducks are in as good a recruiting spot as any team west of SEC country.
The Ducks also have arguably the best facilities of any school at the FBS level, strong investment in the program, friggin’ Nike, and a donor base that speaks for itself. The U was great in the 80s and early 2000s, but Oregon is great now. The Ducks have a national brand and staying power with this generation of recruit.
Slamming Cristobal’s ability is a little sour grapes at this point. Oregon recruited well and played for three Pac-12 titles under his watch. Let’s not forget that. Yes, there were issues, but the floor was high. It is entirely fair, however, to question whether he made the right choice leaving the Ducks for the ‘Canes.