What Utes’ defensive and special teams depth charts could look like heading into spring ball

Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the Utes return 70% of their defensive production in 2024.
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the Utes return 70% of their defensive production in 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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This article was first published in the Ute Insiders newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Wednesday night.

As Utah continues winter conditioning and gets ready for spring camp, which starts next month, here’s a look at what the defensive and special teams depth charts could look like as the Utes head into spring ball.

Dealing with key injuries all season, Utah’s 2023 defense definitely had its weak moments — a 35-6 loss to Oregon and a 42-18 loss to Arizona come to mind — but it was generally the strong suit for the team.

Utah allowed just 19.31 points per game, No. 19 in the country, and 82.8 rushing yards per game, No. 4 in the nation, though it did allow 224.4 passing yards per contest.

Per ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the Utes return 70% of their defensive production, which ranks 28th among FBS teams. Defensive end Jonah Elliss, cornerbacks Miles Battle and JaTravis Broughton and starting safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki are gone, but the Utes return four of five starters along the defensive line and all three starting linebackers.

Here’s a position-by-position glance at what Utah’s 2024 defensive and special teams depth chart could look like when the Utes suit up for spring camp next month.

Defensive line

There’s only one starter that’s moving on from this group, but he’s a big one. Defensive end Jonah Elliss declared for April’s NFL draft and will be leaving a big production hole. Elliss became Utah’s 12th consensus All-American after a monster 2023 season that saw him register 37 tackles, 12 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and three pass breakups in 10 games before missing the final three games of Utah’s season with a shoulder injury.

The good news for Utah is that it has a wealth of experience returning on the defensive line. Logan Fano would be a prime candidate to pick up where Elliss left off, but is coming off of ACL surgery after tearing it five games into the season at Oregon State. Prior to the season-ending injury, Fano had 14 tackles with 3.5 sacks. Depending on the timeline of Fano’s recovery, he could be a factor for the Utes next season, but Connor O’Toole and Van Fillinger will likely start the season at the two end positions.

Keanu Tanuvasa and Junior Tafuna, who started nearly every game at the two tackle spots, are back and will be the incumbents.

The Utes look to be well-stocked at defensive end, with very little turnover. If Fano can return this season and make a difference, and players like Simote Pepa, Tevita Fotu and Aliki Vimahi can do well when rotated in, this group could be great in 2024.

Linebackers

Utah has three proven starting linebackers entering 2024 in Lander Barton, Karene Reid and Levani Damuni. All three played important roles in 2023, with Barton’s sophomore boost standing out — he had 34 tackles, two interceptions, two pass breakups and a forced fumble in seven games before suffering a season-ending injury in October at USC.

Reid and Damuni were steady, with the two combining to lead Utah in tackles — 154 between the two. Reid has been a veteran leader and picked off a pass and broke up four more last season. Damuni, in his first season at Utah after transferring at Stanford, settled in and took on a big role in the absence of Barton.

This group should be Utah’s best on defense, with three high-level returning starters. Sione Fotu also has game experience, playing in 11 games with 18 tackles and one pass breakup last year, and the Utes get returning production from Josh Calvert — three games, three tackles (one for loss) — as well.

Utah had Justin Medlock and Owen Chambliss transfer out in the offseason, plus Hayden Furey and Jason Siaosi graduate, so there’s an opportunity for a true freshman like Kana’i Lopes to crack the two-deep.

Cornerbacks

Utah cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn (5) breaks up a pass intended for Washington receiver Rome Odunze during game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. | Lindsey Wasson, Associated Press
Utah cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn (5) breaks up a pass intended for Washington receiver Rome Odunze during game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. | Lindsey Wasson, Associated Press

Zemaiah Vaughn, Utah’s best cornerback in 2023, made the decision to return to school for the 2024 season, which helps the position group out a lot after starting cornerback JaTravis Broughton transferred and regular contributor Miles Battle declared for the NFL draft.

Vaughn will be CB1 for Morgan Scalley’s defense, assuming the same role as 2023, where he had 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, an interception and six pass breakups.

Utah will be starting someone new opposite Vaughn, and just like Ole Miss transfer Battle came in and played a ton of reps at the position, so too could another transfer player, Georgia Tech’s Kenan Johnson.

Johnson’s experience is a boon for a fairly inexperienced cornerbacks room. The senior had 29 total tackles (20 solo, nine assisted), three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and an interception, while being the highest-graded player on Georgia Tech’s defense, according to Pro Football Focus. He will be in immediate contention for the starting outside cornerback job.

Smith Snowden, who played in 11 games last season, came on strong at the end of the year and finished with seven tackles while gaining valuable experience at the nickel back position. With 2023 starter Tao Johnson likely moving to safety, the nickel back job seems to be Snowden’s to lose.

Elijah Davis, CJ Blocker and Michigan transfer Cameron Calhoun will be the backups and could benefit from a good spring.

Safety

Utah Utes cornerback Tao Johnson warms up for the Utah-UCLA college football game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Johnson could be moved to safety this season. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Tao Johnson warms up for the Utah-UCLA college football game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Johnson could be moved to safety this season. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

This is the most intriguing position in 2024, as the Utes have to replace two great starters in Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop, who declared for the NFL draft.

Against Northwestern in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Utes rolled out Johnathan Hall and Nate Ritchie, but coach Kyle Whittingham has mentioned that Tao Johnson, who started at nickel back but played some safety, will likely move over to safety full time. Johnson has the tools to have success at the safety spot, with Hall available to rotate in.

Ritchie, who returned from his church mission last season, played in 12 games, making three starts with 22 tackles and a sack. It took a bit for him to get his feet back under him during his return to action but with another season under his belt, he could be primed to return to a starting role, a position that he held in 2020.

All of the options here are underclassmen, but Utah added Stanford senior transfer Alaka’i Gilman in the offseason. Gilman played in nine games last season before missing three with injury, starting all nine contests and totaling 50 tackles, an interception and three pass breakups.

Kicker

Cole Becker, the Colorado transfer, helped bring back Utah’s kicking game after a poor 2022 campaign for Utah’s kickers. He converted 15 of 18 field goals in 2023 and made all 28 extra points; his field goal percentage ranked No. 26 in college football. He’ll have the starting job again, with hopes of an injury-free season.

Punter

Jack Bouwmeester improved from 2022 to 2023, averaging 45.5 yards on 55 punts with a long of 64 yards, compared to 2022, when he averaged 39.2 yards on 39 punts with a long of 52 yards. His average yards per punt ranked 14th in the country and helped Utah flip the field in a year where the offense struggled.

Punt/Kick returner

This position is up in the air, but it could go to Money Parks or Mycah Pittman, both of whom tried their hand at it last season before the majority of the reps went to Mikey Matthews, who transferred to Cal this offseason.

Pittman had five punt returns for 33 yards before suffering a season-ending injury against Baylor in September, while Parks had two punt returns for three yards.

Utah Utes receiver Money Parks (10) and Utah Utes safety Ben Durham (30) celebrate Parks’ touchdown during game against the Weber State Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
Utah Utes receiver Money Parks (10) and Utah Utes safety Ben Durham (30) celebrate Parks’ touchdown during game against the Weber State Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Utah’s projected 2024 defensive and special teams depth chart

Defensive line

  • End: Van Fillinger — 6-4, 260, Sr.

  • Tackle: Keanu Tanuvasa — 6-4, 295, So.

  • Tackle: Junior Tafuna — 6-3, 310, Sr.

  • End: Connor O’Toole — 6-4, 251, Sr.

Backups: Logan Fano — 6-4, 246, So; Aliki Vimahi — 6-4, 310, Sr.; Simote Pepa — 6-3, 330, Jr; Tevita Fotu — 6-5, 300, Jr.; Kanious Vaughn — 6-2, 223, Jr.

Linebackers

  • Lander Barton — 6-4, 242, Jr.

  • Karene Reid — 6-0, 227, Sr.

  • Levani Damuni — 6-2, 241, Sr.

Backups: Sione Fotu — 6-0, 226, So; Josh Calvert — 6-2, 223, Sr.; Kana’i Lopes — 6-3, 210, Fr.

Cornerbacks

  • Outside cornerback: Zemaiah Vaughn — 6-2, 185, Sr.

  • Outside cornerback: Kenan Johnson — 6-0, 180, Sr.

  • Nickel back: Smith Snowden — 5-10, 180, So.

Backups: Elijah Davis — 6-1, 175, So.; CJ Blocker — 6-0, 175, Redshirt Fr., Cameron Calhoun — 6-0, 173, Redshirt Fr.

Safety

  • Tao Johnson — 6-1, 192, So.

  • Nate Ritchie — 6-2, 205, So.

Backups: Johnathan Hall — 6-0, 217, So.; Alaka’i Gilman — 5-10, 194, Sr.

Kicker

  • Cole Becker — 6-3, 232, Sr.

Punter

  • Jack Bouwmeester — 6-2, 202, Jr.

Punt/Kick Returner

  • Money Parks — 5-10, 175, Sr. OR Mycah Pittman — 6-0, 214, Sr.


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