Utah Defense: More Suited for 3-4 or 4-3?

As much uncertainty as Dennis Erickson brings to the Utah offense, the defense has some questions of its own and some important holes to fill.

One of those questions remains to be whether the defense will operate out of a base 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Coach Kyle Whittingham has been an advocate of the 4-3 defense since replacing his father as Defensive Coordinator in 1995. But lately we’ve been hearing more about this 3-4 defense and how it might benefit the Utes against the many teams that like to spread the field in the PAC-12.

The folks at InsideTheUtes.com seem dead certain Utah’s defense will work out of a 3-4 base. But just as certain as the Scout guys are, UteZone publishers are saying it will not happen.

Regardless of the base defense argument, expect Utah to utilize both formations regularly this year based on the opponent. You might see the 3-4 a lot when the Utes travel to Eugene but maybe more 4-3 when a team like Stanford comes to town. Either way, Whitt and Kalani Sitake will get their best players on the field given the situation at hand at that time.

The purpose of this post is not to claim a victor in the argument, just speculate how Utah might move players around to accommodate both formations.

Nate Fakahafua is the only regular starter returning on the defensive line which leaves Utah with some major shoes to fill up front.

Tenny Palepoi, Niasi Leota and Seni Fauonuku look to be the most experienced and capable guys to fill the holes left by Star Lotuleilei and Dave Kruger. LT Tuipulotu played in just three games last year as a junior after playing in 10 games as a sophomore. The coaches are very excited about incoming freshman Keio Vaenuku and expect him to contribute right away. Sese Ianu also adds some experienced talent from the junior college ranks and will certainly compete for a spot on the depth chart in 2013. Much of the 4-3/3-4 discussion rests on just how good this group is come fall. Palepoi and Tuipulotu both weigh in over 300 lbs. and could be the mass in the middle while Leota, Fauonuku and Vaenuku slide outside.

As for the ends, pencil in Fakahafua as a starting DE anytime Utah utilizes the 4-3 defense. The junior would likely move to “rush” linebacker in 3-4 formations. Thretton Palamo played opposite Fakahafua and Kruger at times in 2012. The rugby star could emerge in 2013 although his understanding of the game has come slower than coaches might have hoped. Redshirt freshman Hunter Dimick stood out on the practice squad last year and will certainly get a look this season. As a bigger-bodied DE, Dimick could also play end in 3-4. Incoming freshman Sam Tevi is another player coaches believe can have an immediate impact. Unlike the depth at DT, however, I’m not yet sold on this group’s ability or experience. Of course neither are Coaches Whitt and Sitake who called on Jacoby Hale, Tevor Reilly and even VJ Fehoko to play end at times in 2012. A move to 3-4 could put less of a burden on this group to perform given the need for more meat up front.

The only group that may have been as inconsistent, in terms of personnel, as the offensive line may have been the linebackers. Fortunately it was a young group and most are back with a few more snaps under their belt. I don’t think Utah fans will miss outgoing seniors Dave Fagergren or Boo Anderson. That leaves Fehoko, Reilly, Jason Whittingham, Reshawn Hooker, Travis Still, LT Filiaga, Victor Spikes and Jared Norris to fight it out for three to four positions depending on formation. Add Brian Blechen to this group and you’ve got a ton of depth, although the bunch has yet to produce what Utah needs. If Blechen slides up to LB, you can pencil him in both 4-3 and 3-4 formations. Fehoko is another likely starter. Reilly will also find a home as an outside linebacker in either formation. Reshawn Hooker’s health will determine how quickly the talented redshirt freshman gets back on the field after a season ending injury last year. Jason Whittingham also logged a lot of minutes last season. This group certainly has the talent, on paper, to play either formation but they’ll need to be much more productive if Utah’s defense is going to return to its glory days.

Look for Utah State, BYU, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington State to all try and spread the field against Utah. That means the Utes could depart from the traditional 4-3 in favor of 3-4, 3-3-5 and other formations that call for additional speed on the field.

About the author

Matt Hugie

A graduate of Weber State University, my day job is journalism as the Assistant News Director for KPVI-TV based in Pocatello, Idaho. My passion is sports particularly the University of Utah. I've been going to games as long as I can remember and it's the best way I know how to honor a loving father who took me to games when I was a young buck but passed on to the other side far too soon. Now I take my smokin' hot wife at least until she gets too pregnant with our first to attend.