Restoring the swagger

— Conor Barry Griffin Adams
Eric Rowe defends a pass against Arizona St. last season. - Conor Barry/ The Daily Utah Chronicle

Eric Rowe defends a pass against Arizona St. last season. – Conor Barry/ The Daily Utah Chronicle

Because teams in the modern college football era are passing the ball more while running the spread offense, the secondary has become one of the most important units for any defense. With four or even five targets on nearly every down, the cornerbacks and safeties really need to know their jobs in order to prevent an offensive outburst.

In the 2013 campaign, the Utes averaged a whopping 38 opponent pass attempts per game, which was ninth worst in the entire nation. In addition, Utah’s secondary also gave up an average of 279.3 passing yards per game.

These lackluster numbers are something Ute fans are not used to, as six former Utah players are now playing in the NFL. Some of those names include Pro Bowler Eric Weddle, Sean Smith and most recent draftee Keith McGill, who was taken in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders in the NFL draft in May.

Despite the Utes’ struggles last season and losing McGill to the NFL, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah is optimistic about his unit doing better this year than last year and restoring the swagger former Utah secondaries used to carry.

“I think that we will probably be even better,” Shah said. “I think Keith [McGill] was a phenomenal talent. We have a chance to be a lot better as a secondary. Clearly Keith will be missed, his length and size you cannot replace.”

One major change that will be taking place in the secondary this year is switching Eric Rowe from free safety to cornerback. Rowe has arguably been the best player in the unit since he joined the program. Shah said it wasn’t his decision to switch Rowe from his former position, but instead the decision was made by defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.

“Anybody who comes to me in my room, I coach him,” Shah said. “I’m overjoyed to have [Rowe] in my room.”

Senior Davion Orphey and sophomores Reginald Porter and Justin Thomas are all expected to join Rowe in the rotation this year according to Shah.

As for the free safety position, that is left open after Rowe’s departure from the group. Safeties coach Morgan Scalley is confident with filling the free safety position with somebody else. A couple names Scalley mentioned as possible replacements included junior college transfer Tevin Carter, who has one year of eligibility left, and Brian Allen, who is contending for the spot after transitioning to safety from wide receiver.

That being said, Scalley said he isn’t scared to put a freshman into the mix for the starting spot, as he mentioned Marcus Williams, Andre Godfrey and Monte Seabrook all as players who are competing for it.

“It’s kind of a luxury if no one steps up and takes that spot at the free safety position that we can easily move [Rowe] back,” Scalley said. “We feel confident that with the guys we have coming back and the guys that we have coming into the program that we will be able to fill that free safety position.”

Moving to the strong safety position, it is Brian Blechen’s to lose. Blechen is a fifth-year senior who is coming off of a medical redshirt season where he didn’t even play one game due to injury. The hard-hitting safety was a freshman All-American in 2010 and received an honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 and 2012.

Both coaches agreed the biggest thing their unit needs to improve on is forcing turnovers. The Utes secondary only forced three interceptions in 12 games last season.

“We feel like the guys coming in have good ball skills and can get interceptions for us,” Scalley said.

The unit will have no shortage of challenges this season as it will go up against some of the best quarterbacks in the country. With games against quarterbacks such as Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Taylor Kelly, Ute fans will find out quickly just how improved the secondary will be from last season.

b.jasarevic@chronicle.utah.edu