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Utah Preview: Defense

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Read up on the 2nd best defense in the Pac-12.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line

LE Hunter Dimick (Jr., 6-3, 270), DT Lowell Lotulelei (So., 6-2, 302), DT Filipo Mokofisi (So., 6-3, 285), RE Jason Fanaika (Sr., 6-3, 270)

Utah boasts a big old-fashioned four-man defensive line. Lowell Lotulelei, brother of former Utah star and NFL first-round pick Star Lotulelei, plugs up the interior alongside Mokofisi. Lowell was named Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 last season as a freshman, and while his counting stat production hasn't equaled that of 2014, he is a formidable young tackle. Mokofisi was initially pegged as a defensive end, but his slide into the interior has given the Utes a pair of starting tackles for the next couple years.

Dimick and Fanaika have both accounted for roughly 2.0 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss. At a matching 6-3 and 270 pounds, they also provide far better support against the run than your average Pac-12 end.

This line features some heavy rotation, including two key backups on the edge. Kylie Fitts, a transfer from UCLA listed behind Dimick on the left, has totaled 20 tackles and 3.5 sacks, 2nd best on the roster. Behind Fanaika lurks Pita Taumoepenu, who leads the team with 4.0 sacks as a strict pass-rushing specialist.

Big Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (Jr., 6-1, 320) will be the first in to spell Lotulelei.

Plugging up the middle and stuffing the run game is a huge part of Utah's identity, and obviously that approach begins with the defensive line. Only UW has been better against the run on a per carry basis, allowing 3.2 yards per carry compared to 3.47 for Utah. It's perhaps even more impressive that opponents have only scored 6 touchdowns on the ground against the Utes, best in the Pac-12.

Linebackers

STUD Jason Whittingham (Sr., 6-2, 245), MAC Jared Norris (Sr., 6-2, 240), ROVER Gionni Paul (Sr., 5-10, 225)

Utah goes a little nuts with the linebacker designations and I'm not sure I'm a fan.

At the very least, Gionni Paul's play style validates the moniker. He leads the team both in total tackles, with 75, and in tackles for loss, with 10. He has also picked off two passes, forced two fumbles, and recovered two fumbles.

The coach's nephew Whittingham is technically a starter, but he is the first player off the field whenever the Utes run a nickel defense...which they happen to do very frequently in the spread-happy Pac-12.

Norris has been very steady in the middle, contributing 57 tackles (2nd only to Paul).

Defensive Backs

CB Dominique Hatfield (Jr., 5-10, 175), FS Marcus Williams (So., 6-0, 190), SS Tevin Carter (Sr., 6-1, 215), CB Reginald Porter (Jr., 5-11, 184), NB Justin Thomas (Jr., 5-8, 178)

The Utes rank 4th in the conference in yards allowed per passing attempt at 6.8, just a hair better than UW's 6.9. This unit has also picked off exactly as many passes, 13, as they have allowed touchdowns. No other Pac-12 defense has managed as many interceptions.

Hatfield started his career as a wide receiver before making the switch to corner early in the 2014 season. He quickly claimed a starting spot and this year he has already picked off three passes and cemented himself as Utah's best cover corner.

The other star of this unit has to be Marcus Williams. The do-everything safety has picked off a conference-high four passes to go along with 42 tackles. Carter, Porter, and Thomas are all solid players that know and fit their respective roles.

Overview

This is a very good, well balanced defense that I would hesitate to call great. Thing is, they likely won't need to be great to give the Washington offense a great deal of trouble.

For the Huskies, offensive line play seems to be trending up, especially in terms of run blocking for Myles Gaskin and Dwayne Washington.

For a true freshman running back and a true freshman quarterback to find success against arguably the 2nd best defense in the conference, this young offensive line will have to continue that upwards trend.

Browning is not dependent on any one husky receiver. If he has time and the support of a healthy two-headed run game, I believe he can find open targets and sustain long enough drives to keep the defense reasonably fresh. It will be a tall task for Trey Adams and the rest of the line, especially in dealing with the pass-rush depth provided by Fitts and Taumoepenu.

In terms of receivers and tight ends, the victory last week saw a vast improvement in one of the UW offense's biggest weaknesses: perimeter blocking. We even saw some bubble screens work because receivers actually blocked the corner.

Was that improvement solely do to the poor quality and low motivation of the Wildcats defense, or is it progress that will be sustained against Utah?

These various uncertainties are inevitable when the entire team is expected to grow in to something slightly different and slightly better each and every week. The pieces are there: more raw talent on the line than the Huskies have seen in years, and starters at quarterback and running back who could be penciled in for the next three years.

There's no telling how prolific this offense could be in one year, or two. For now they simply need to scrape out somewhere around 20 points against an intimidating defense. If they can manage 20+, I have a feeling this one will come down to the wire.