This past season marked the first Pac-12 conference championship appearance for the Utah Utes since joining the conference in 2011. While stars on offense such as Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss missed a handful of games combined, the defense picked up the slack. Led by the departed Marquise Blair and Cody Barton, both of whom were day two NFL draft picks to the Seattle Seahawks, the Utes have a cluster of stars returning on that side of the ball. No one thought this would be the case, however.

Even head coach Kyle Whittingham believed one of his standout junior players would forego their final year of eligibility whether that player was Moss, Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu or Julian Blackmon. The count of underclassmen to enter the draft has nearly tripled over the past decade. Thus, you almost have to assume juniors will declare until further notice. What seemed to be too good to be true turned into reality as each of those guys returned to school with their sights set on a conference championship.

Entering the season a consensus top 15 team, the Utes are the favorites in the South division. A rematch against Washington very well could be on the horizon this fall. Even with talented seniors in Huntley and Moss leading the charge on offense, if Utah returns to the Pac-12 championship, it’ll ride on the dominance of their defense. A unit which ranked 14th nationally last season while bolstering a top-five run defense.

Upfront, the Utes are led by Anae and Fotu. Anae is the Pac-12’s returning sack leader and a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Fotu is as stout as they come and the guy they rely on to consume blocks in the trenches. Blackmon has experience at cornerback but will transition to safety as a senior. Then there’s Jaylon Johnson, who many draft analysts project as a first-round talent.

DL Leki Fotu

Returning off a First-Team All-Pac-12 season, Fotu is a massive load in the trenches. Fotu’s parents hail from Tonga, and three of his brothers have or currently play at the FBS level. His stature presents an immovable presence. Combined with brute strength, Fotu excels as a two-gapping specialist. He possesses innate ability to anchor and take on blocks.

Fotu was a driving factor behind Utah’s top-five run defense. His ability to plug gaps and eat blocks makes the job for the guys behind him that much easier. He shows off flexibility and power in his lower half. He can hold onto blockers while working laterally towards the ball carrier and disengage at will. With his body mass, athleticism and strength, Fotu forces double teams nearly every snap he’s on the field. An invaluable quality despite the declining value of the 1-tech.

The most admirable trait regarding Fotu’s game is his non-stop motor and effort. Considering he weighs in at around 330 pounds, he moves exceptionally well in space. He’s always chasing the ball and often ends up with a cleanup stop. Even if that means working across the field, it’s rare to see a defensive tackle so involved when the play reaches the second level, but Fotu makes his presence known in that aspect.

This season it’d be encouraging to see Fotu display more in terms of hand usage. Not asked to pass rush much, he’s shown ability to penetrate the pocket and force quarterbacks to maneuver. Typically depending on a bull rush, adding some moves to the toolbox could do wonders to his NFL draft stock. At this point, Fotu presents a safe, early day three floor and fills a role with some zest.

EDGE Bradlee Anae

The most productive player you’ll find on Utah’s defense, Bradlee Anae returns as the Pac-12’s leading sack leader from last season. The Hawaii native also has 26 career tackles for loss on the ledger. He returns for his senior year with not only the goal of winning a conference championship. Additionally, he’s chasing the Utah sack record held by Hunter Dimick. Needing 13.5 sacks, he’ll need to average just about a sack per game and nearly double his career-high of 7.5 which was posted last season.

Like Fotu, Anae also returns as a First-Team All-Pac-12 honoree and comes from a strong lineage of athletes. His father played at BYU and was drafted into the USFL. His uncle is the offensive coordinator at Virginia. Anae also has a pair of sisters who played college volleyball, one of which was an All-American for the Utes.

Known for his pass rush prowess, Anae flashes a lot of seasoning in that department. For one, he’s routinely the first man off the ball. He has a quick first step which he utilizes to get his hips parallel to his blocker. From there, his go-to move is the rip move which he often combos from a pull. Anae isn’t a natural bender around the arch. However, he has enough twitch to where he can win with speed and effort.

While Anae excels as a pass rusher, he’s established himself as a stout run defender as well. He can blow up runs in the backfield with his ability to shed and stack. However, Anae can get overpowered at times, and his play strength is one of his most significant weaknesses. After receiving a third-fourth round grade from the NFL Draft advisory board, Anae returns to Provo looking for a conference championship, the school sack record and an improvement in draft stock. He’s been dominant at times for Utah but will need to elevate his play as a senior to fulfill those goals.

CB Jaylon Johnson

A pure cover corner, Johnson is in the conversation among the top corners in the 2020 NFL Draft. With all the capabilities of a lockdown corner, he was named First-Team All-Pac-12 and figures to get back to that spot again this season. Coming out of high school, Johnson was lasered at 4.47 and recorded a 38.3” vertical jump. Impressive marks which he’s bound to improve once he gets to the NFL Combine.

As instrumental as the front seven has been in Utah’s defensive success, Johnson has been just as important, if not more. His capability to seemingly take away one side of the field is sure to appeal to NFL teams. He’s sticky in man coverage and can mirror the best of them. With his speed, he guards the deep phase of the field well and is rarely beat over the top.

What may ultimately hold Johnson out of the first round is his partial skillset. As impressive as he is in coverage, he has an incomplete skillset compared to most corners who find themselves off the board in the top 32 picks. Johnson is allergic to physical play and is typically a bystander when a play breaks towards him. He can take away the deep ball. However, he struggles to match receivers working back to the ball. That’s where the majority of his allowed catches occurred. Not that he has stiff hips, but he often struggled to get turned around, which hindered his ability to react to the break.

The top NFL draft prospect for the Utes entering the season, Johnson has a chance to be the third Ute drafted in the first round to close this decade. Between his shutdown ability and athletic traits, he’s guaranteed to garner a high selection this spring. However, in such a loaded CB class, that could force him out of the first round.

S Julian Blackmon

Not as recognized as his fellow defenders, Blackmon is a wildcard who could emerge as a quality draft prospect. Transitioning from corner to safety, he’s already added 15 pounds since May and has fully indulged the adaptation. Even though he’s two-time All-Conference at CB, the switch could do him well.

Last season was a bumpy ride for Blackmon as he proved to be vulnerable against the deep ball. Moving to safety should solidify his game. He excels when he can sit back and read the quarterback’s eyes with the play in front of him. When working in zone, Blackmon has shown impressive read and react skills. In his move to safety, he’ll be able to display that even more. He’s flashed exceptional range in the past with good ball production which includes five interceptions, and 16 passes defended over the past two seasons.

Aside from his scattered blowups in coverage, Blackmon has shown inconsistencies taking on contact at the point of attack. However, he can lay some licks when he takes clean angles. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s able to adapt to working downhill. However, I’d expect a lot of up and down moments.

Depending on how the transition to safety ultimately goes, Blackmon has a great opportunity to rise up NFL draft boards. NFL teams covet hybrid safeties who can fill in at corner as well. If he makes some noise this season, Blackmon is a guy we could see down in Mobile for this year’s Senior Bowl, where he’ll have a shot to elevate his stock even more.