SALT LAKE CITY — On the second day of the new year, Gary Andersen came home.
After the NCAA approved a rule that allowed teams to hire a 10th assistant coach, the former Utah defensive coordinator returned to the program in the capacity of assistant head coach/defensive line coach after resigning as head coach at Oregon State following a 1-5 start in 2017.
“Every day is a great day,” he says, happy to be back at his alma mater for his third stint in 21 years.
But on some level, “getting home” has carried a double-meaning for Andersen’s new appointment, which is to fix last season’s disappointing pass rush.
While Utah football has often rested on the laurels of its defense, specifically its ability to generate pressure, last season brought an effort that slipped significantly by the Utes' standards. Headlined by Bradlee Anae (seven sacks) and Cody Barton (four sacks), both returning starters this season, the group formerly known as “Sack Lake City” totaled the program’s lowest sack output (25) in 10 years last season.
What’s more was the defensive line, often considered the Utes’ strongest position group year in and year out, posted its lowest sack rate on passing downs (3.8) in 2017-18, ranking it 122nd nationally in the category, according to Football Outsiders.
Add it all up, and it’s clear the Utes have serious work to do to if they are to re-establish pressure as a strength with their defensive unit. But to fix the problem, Andersen—and to a lesser degree, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley—will have to address the significant turnover within that group, as Kylie Fitts, Filipo Mokofisi, Kavika Luafatasaga and Lowell Lotulelei have moved on from the program.
“The D-tackles have a little bit more depth than the D-ends right now,” Scalley said of the defensive line. “Caleb Repp has had a good couple of days. Maxs Tupai coming back off his hamstring, he’s playing more consistently. … Offseason will tell a lot, but in terms of who we’re looking at (for defensive end), it’s Jeremiah Jordan, it’s Mika Tafua, it’s Bradlee Anae. …”
Andersen added: “The goal coming out for us in spring is to have two-deep at the tackle spot and two-deep at the end spot. I feel like we’re making good progress there.”
What may help as much as anything will be the performance of Utah’s ultra-deep secondary, which returns most of last season’s top producers. A look at Utah’s depth chart shows that Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson are set to return opposite each other, as are Corrion Ballard, Javelin Guidry, Casey Hughes and Marquise Blair. Meanwhile, Chase Hansen, long playing at a weight more becoming of a linebacker, was moved to rover during the offseason.
“The defensive line definitely complements the DBs, and the DBs definitely complement the defensive line,” Andersen said. “It’s nice for the defensive front to know that you have those kids on the back end. That ‘hey, if we can get there, we’re gonna have a great opportunity that the kids are in the right spot.' So I think that they do feed off of each other, I do think that they build off of each other, which all defenses should.”
Andersen says that harmonizing the front and back ends requires a corporate knowledge of the scheme as well as open communication lines between coaches, both of which he feels exist on the current staff.
“I think we all have a good knowledge of the defense being in it for as many years as we’ve been it,” he said. “Eyes are good, too many mouths is not a good thing. And I think we all understand exactly how that all fits. It’s a very, very good culture.”
Dillon Anderson is studying literary journalism as a student at the University of Utah. You can follow him on Twitter @DillonDanderson.