With a tip of the cap to the ESPN's Bill Barnwell, who assembled triplet rankings for pro football, we decided to do the same for the Pac-12.
Here are the parameters: We’ve selected a trio of skill players from each team in the conference. And the rules: Each player comes from a different position group, so the defensive version of this series features a player from the defensive line, linebacker group and secondary. We then ranked each program’s troika against the others in the Pac-12, and we’ll be unveiling and writing about each in reverse countdown order.
We continue to the No. 6 Utah Utes.
Already touted as a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, the first-team all-conference performer last season should continue to be one of the most dominant defenders in the league and probably the country. He tallied 26 tackles last year, with five for a loss and a sack. But it’s the blockers he eats up that allows the linebackers and fellow defensive linemen Hunter Dimick and Kylie Fitts to flourish.
This is Utah’s only real defensive question. Coach Kyle Whittingham said Tauteoli came out of spring ball as the top linebacker, so we’ll probably look for him to fill the role vacated by the departed Gionni Paul (117 tackles last year). But they also have to replace Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham. The good news is that Utah spends more time with just two linebackers on the field than they ever have. The coach went as far as to call their old 4-3 scheme “ancient.” So expect plenty of 4-2-5 formations, which should take some of the pressure off of the rebuilt linebacking corps.
Another returning first-team all-conference performer, Williams tallied 66 stops last year and five interceptions, which tied for second in the league. He headlines an experienced secondary that should again be one of the best in the Pac-12. Like having a stout and experienced defensive line, the talent the Utes have the in the secondary should help relieve some of the pressure of a new group of linebackers.
This is a solid group, maybe one of the best in the conference. What held them back during the voting/ranking process was the lack of experience at linebacker. That’s to be expected until we see what the group can do. But it’s worth noting that Utah’s defense ranked second in the conference last season, allowing just 22.3 points per game. In the school's time as a Pac-12 member, that’s bested only by Utah’s first year in the league (2011), when it led the conference in allowing 20.2 points per game. Notable too is that the Utes led the Pac-12 with a plus-13 turnover ratio last season. With plenty of questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense (and special teams) will need to carry the team until they figure out the best way to put up points. If they can replicate that turnover production, it would give the offense extra opportunities. If they can't, the offense might have to accelerate its learning curve for the Utes to keep up.