Defense continues to lead the way for Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Kyle Whittingham's teams at Utah are known for their defense and 2015 should be no different. The unit returns nine starters from last year's roster and was sharp throughout spring practices.

The Utes ended their spring session Saturday with a game that was dominated by defense despite several starters being held out on both sides.

''Time will tell where this defense ends up,'' Whittingham said. ''But right now, what we saw in spring, it's pretty darn good.''

Utah was one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 last season, the program's fourth season in the conference. It ranked No. 2 in the conference in both total defense and pass defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and boasted the No. 6 rush defense.

With most of the starters back, there's one thing senior linebacker Jared Norris is focused on.

''We harp on being perfect,'' Norris said. ''It's being perfect. It's trusting your teammates. ... It's a different feeling even when we're out at practice. ... If we can get everyone to that point (of playing seamlessly together), there's nobody that's going to move the ball on us. Especially in the run game.''

Whittingham has high expectations for Norris, defensive end Hunter Dimick, cornerback Dominique Hatfield and safety Tevin Carter. The run defense should remain strong with a defensive line that goes eight deep. Reginald Porter is the favorite to start at cornerback opposite Hatfield. Norris, Jason Whittingham and Gionni Paul are all senior linebackers.

Senior end Jason Fanaika said the goal is simply to be the best defense in the nation.

''What we're trying to do is establish a dominant force,'' Fanaika said. ''Everybody knows that no one's going to out hit us, no one's going to out-play-defense against us. No matter what happens, our defense is going to be a strong base, a strong foundation to be able to lean on and push us forward through those tight games.

''Just playing with more swag than we had last year. Just trying to be more of a dominant force. Trying to separate ourselves from other defenses. Wanting to be an elite type of defense. ... There's no reason we shouldn't be one of the best defenses in the nation, if not the best defense in the nation.''

The Utes were No. 6 in turnover margin in the Pac-12 and that has been a focus of the spring. Goals were set for each practice, including four turnovers and a score each session. Norris said they reached that on most days and Saturday was another example of that. There were four interceptions on the day, including a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown by Marcus Williams, and the offenses never reached the end zone.

''That's the name of the game on defense, is creating takeaways,'' Whittingham said. ''That's something that was stressed from day one. ... That probably is the biggest thing that was emphasized even more. The players took that to heart and we tracked turnovers throughout the course of spring. ... We thought we had a good spring on defense.''

Turnovers aren't the only goal. The team wants more sacks, more pass breakups, more everything. That's the kind of bar that's set with Whittingham, the 2008 coach of the year. Norris explained there's an expectation on that side of the ball that's been set by former players such as Eric Weddle, Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker. Most recently, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was the No. 14 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Nate Orchard could be an early round pick in the 2015 draft.

''If you come here as a defensive player, you know your role,'' Norris said. ''You know who you are as a player. There's no real need to talk about the effort or the mentality you have to have. That's who you are. That's why you came here.

''They don't choose guys that don't want to hit. They don't choose guys that aren't willing to puke their brains out and then go hit someone else again. It's a mentality you have to have. I think it's great. That's what this program has been built off of.''