Here’s who would start in secondary for Utah if the season began today

Tao Johnson practices during spring camp at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.
Tao Johnson practices during spring camp at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.

There’s still over 150 days left until the Utes kick off the season against Southern Utah, so a lot could change on the depth chart leading up to kickoff, but through three weeks of spring football, players are starting to separate themselves in the secondary.

With cornerback Miles Battle testing the NFL Draft waters after completing his NCAA eligibility, cornerback JaTravis Broughton transferring to LSU and nickel back Tao Johnson making the move to safety in 2024 — plus starting safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki headed to the NFL Draft — the back end of Utah’s defense is going to look different in 2024.

The only returning starter from Utah’s 2023 secondary is senior cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn, who had the best season of his career last year, earning an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod while being Utah’s second-highest-graded defensive player among players that played 100 or more snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Vaughn finished the season with 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, an interception and seven pass deflections.

“With no Zemaiah, we’d be in a world of hurt. To have him come back puts us in a very good position to be competitive in every single game,” cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said.

This week, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said if the season started today, Vaughn and senior Georgia Tech transfer Kenan Johnson would be at the two outside cornerback spots, with sophomore Smith Snowden at the nickel back spot.

Johnson brings Division I experience to the cornerback room, having played in 45 games for the Yellow Jackets, and started eight games in 2023, totaling 29 tackles, two forced fumbles, four pass deflections and an interception.

“He’s made plays from day one. He was a great addition to our football team and has really helped solidify that secondary,” Whittingham said.

Snowden, a four-star recruit from Skyridge High, played in five games (105 snaps) at nickel back in 2023 toward the end of the season, with seven tackles.

He appears poised to take the starting nickel spot with Tao Johnson moving to safety.

“Smith has been very, very good,” Shah said.

As Snowden makes the next step in his college journey, Shah is emphasizing the importance of consistency.

“As a nickel, there are situations in which you’re not going to be in the game because of an offensive personnel group and your reps become limited throughout the game,” Shah said. “So there are not opportunities for us to just make mistakes or not capitalize on contested balls, come down with interceptions that we have to. Be consistent, be a consistent playmaker, continue to elevate the play around you. That’s what I want to see.”

Whittingham said multiple times last season that Tao Johnson’s natural position was free safety, and Utah played him at free safety for 143 snaps in 2023, but since the team had two NFL-caliber players at safety in Bishop and Vaki, Johnson’s full-time turn at the position would have to wait one more year.

“Speed. He’s got really good speed over the top. He’s got great ball skills … Cole and Sione were very good, very good safeties, could play on the back end, but Tao just with his ability to cover ground is really pleasant to see back there,” Scalley said.

Johnson would be Utah’s starting free safety if the season started today, Whittingham said, with a battle between sophomore Nate Ritchie, senior Stanford transfer Alaka’i Gilman and sophomore Johnathan Hall for the strong safety spot.

Ritchie, who returned from his church mission last season, played about 154 snaps at safety over 11 games, making three starts with 22 tackles and a sack. It took a bit for him to get his feet back under him during his return to action but with another season under his belt, he could be primed to return to a starting role, a position that he held in 2020.

Hall played six games with one start, playing 59 snaps at safety over six games and totaling 19 tackles and a sack.

Gilman has the most experience in the room, having played four years for Stanford and having earned a starting role last year. He totaled 50 tackles, an interception and four pass deflections through nine games before missing the rest of the season.

Gilman earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod for his play in 2023.