Rose Bowl Diaries: Defensive Media Day
LOS ANGELES - It was a cold and rainy day in the Los Angeles area on Wednesday, but that didn't stop the Utah Football program from getting in a full day of bowl prep as the 108th Rose Bowl Game is set to kick off on Saturday, Jan. 1. The Utes and the Buckeyes will kick off at 2 p.m. PT/3 p.m. MT on ESPN.
Rainy weather? Only a minor hurdle for @Utah_Football pic.twitter.com/nxjwEpbmFC
— Rose Bowl Game (@rosebowlgame) December 29, 2021
The Utes started the day with a media session featuring the Utah defensive unit, followed by a solid practice as the Utes continue to look forward to the game against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Defensive Coordinator Morgan Scalley
This group's experience of having been in bowls and played in big games together, does that make the preparation for the game a little bit easier because big games and things, stages like this aren't new to them?
"Yeah, we're still dealing with a lot of youth on this team. This is a first time for a lot of guys on this team. Some of the vets, obviously, have played in some big-time games throughout the years. These younger guys, they played in the championship game. We've had to win throughout the season to kind of stay alive and to be in contention to win the championship. So, every game's a big game, but these ones are a little bit more special."
Having played in the Fiesta Bowl, coached in the Sugar Bowl, and now you're in this one, is there a different feel as far as the buildup to this game compared to the Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl?
"I guess the Fiesta Bowl was one of those deals where you're the first team to bust the BCS, so different feel there. The Sugar Bowl, I think just the matchup. People didn't anticipate Utah doing much. I think with this matchup, you've got two teams very well respected, they respect each other, and maybe that's the feel is that you're going into it with mutual respect and everyone anticipates a good game."
You guys have measured success with players that weren't four or five star guys maybe making position changes, developing them over the years. What do you see in guys like that that maybe others don't see when you're out there recruiting?
"I think just the continuity of being at the same place every year, playing the same defense, you get a feel for that type of athlete that fits your scheme, right? Then you become more confident in your ability. Okay, here's the skill set we're looking for. Then you have to have confidence that you can develop that skill set. Coach Whittingham's whole philosophy in our program is recruit, develop, and manage. So, you've got to recruit the people in your program that you feel will be a good fit, number two has the skill set that you can develop into a Pac-12 player, and then just take care of them. Give them the tools they need to succeed, teach, hold them accountable. It's a Kyle Whittingham deal."
Do you remember the moment where you realized how special Devin Lloyd was, that he was going to be a good player?
"Someone asked that question a while ago. We played Oregon State on the road in 2019, and he had a tipped interception and took it all the way to the house. That was his first significant time. He's always looking for ways to improve, always looking for ways to add value and get better. He grew up in a room with some very good leaders -- Chase Hansen, Cody Barton, Francis Bernard, who taught him how to study film, taught him how to treat the game as a professional. He has become just as much, if not -- match those guys in terms of leadership, if not exceeded that. He is compelling, brings guys along. Takes the younger guys, and instead of, hey, scrubs, you guys, you wait your turn. No, he's out there practicing with them. He brings them in the film room and teaches them. I can't overstate what a blessing he has been to us."
Coach, some would say you're the ultimate Utah man. The Utah fan base is so excited about the Utes finally made it. Can you appreciate how cool it is that you guys are actually here at the Rose Bowl, week of the Rose Bowl, game's on Saturday?
"It's been a special season in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. The biggest joy you get is just watching the players. It was devastating in '19 to lose the championship game, and as devastating as that was, it's such a huge -- it's not a sigh of relief. It's not a shout for joy. I'm so happy for these guys. They fought so hard, and they've gone through so much. I want them to enjoy every minute of this week."
Junior Linebacker Devin Lloyd
What's the team's mindset as you're here in California getting ready for the Rose Bowl?
"The mindset is to play the best we can in the Granddaddy of Them All really. This is an amazing opportunity for the program, for the university, to be the first team to go to the Rose Bowl. As much as we want to enjoy all the festivities that come with it, we know ultimately we're here to play a game and win a game. We're going to do everything we can to just make sure we put ourselves in the best position to win."
How fitting is it that your last game in a Utah uniform is in the Rose Bowl?
"Couldn't script it any better. I'm just really thankful for everything that's happened along the way in my journey. I'm just looking to go out the right way. Looking to go out the right way as well as everyone on the team."
What's been the key to your defensive strategy this year?
"I think Coach Scalley does a great job of first setting the culture, and then I think everyone on the team is really just bought in. We have a lot of young guys, and ever since they came in all they did was work. Then us as leaders, some of the guys, you know, who have been here prior years, we just set the example every day and we make sure that they follow. Everyone is just bought in. Everyone has done a great job all year doing all the little thing right because it always adds up and all matters."
Great question! @DevinLloyd_ has some great advice for young players that helped pave his way to the #RoseBowl https://t.co/XBCFb5CA82 pic.twitter.com/BuOgkcv7xc
— Rose Bowl Game (@rosebowlgame) December 29, 2021
What does it mean to you to be part of the first Utah team to win the Pac-12?
"Extremely special. It's the things that when you come here on a visit you dream of, you want to make happen. You want to be remembered in Utah history. You don't want to just go four, five years without necessarily doing anything. Obviously you're going to graduate, come to college and get what you really came there for, but on the football side of it you want to do something special. You want to be remembered. So to put myself in that position along with everybody on the team, you know, I can vouch for them saying it's something we'll remember for the rest of our lives."
What does it mean for this group to carry on the legacies of Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan?
"Everything. You know, everything for me personally and everything for the guys on the team. You know, we been playing for them and through them all season. You know, we dedicated so much of what we do to them just because they left such a huge impact on everybody on the team. I mean, their spirit is with us. You can feel them in the games and in the locker room. I mean, you can feel them with us. So just playing for them and letting them strengthen us in games, it's something that we take extreme pride in."
Freshman Cornerback Clark Phillips III
Is this what you envisioned when you signed with Utah, that you'd be competing for Pac-12 Championships and competing in Rose Bowls?
"Yeah, it's everything. You make goals at the beginning of the season and you just never know if you're going to accomplish them or when it's going to be. This was one of those things I would have never expected, but also excited for and you work for every single day, and I'm just like so grateful because who would have thought it would have been in my freshman year. I know it's my second freshman year, but who would have thought it would have been freshman year."
What made you so comfortable that Utah could have this kind of success?
"Faith. I knew the culture. That was the big thing for me. That's why for me it was like, all right, I understand these guys. When I was talking to the staff, when I saw the players in the locker room, when I got to talk to them, talk to guys like Terrell Burgess on the Rams now, and I saw the culture. The culture was super strong. They have a great defense, and they're just -- the way that they are, I was like, okay, I could be a part of this, and I wanted to be a part of a great defensively focused team, as well, and Coach Kyle Whittingham, I know that speaks for itself, and I was like, I want to be a part of that program, and so it was easy for me."
Talk about the emotion of the Pac-12 Championship game and the season as a whole for the whole team.
"Very, very emotional. We went through a lot this year. We made goals at the beginning of the season, and at the end of the season we lost some people. We lost one of our dear teammates in Aaron Lowe. We lost Ty Jordan last year. Just being in that game, it was something that we dreamed of and that those guys dreamed of. We felt like we were playing for something huge, something way bigger. Yeah, man, it was really, really -- it was a special -- what a bittersweet moment because it was like, dang, just so glad that we got here, so glad that we won. I hugged Sharrieff Shah afterwards and we both just started crying because we couldn't hold it back. It was like, this is what we worked for. This is what Aaron wanted. This is what Ty wanted. We did it. No, it was super emotional."
Junior Linebacker Nephi Sewell
How has it been trying to stay focused while also having a bit of fun?
"I think that's one of the main things we told everyone before going on break: when it's time to work, come to work and when it's time to have fun, you can have fun. But at practice, we just got to really hone into what we're trying to accomplish here. Because at the end of the day, we're trying to win a football game. And that's the main part of the trip. You know, we're doing all these fun things, but at the end of the day, all you're going to remember is the game. So [you] try to tell everyone how important it is to stay focused even throughout all these activities."
What does it mean to you to play in the Rose Bowl?
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be here. I'm glad we came together as a team and made a strong push to finish the season. I'm just really grateful. You know, I didn't know much about the Rose Bowl until [my brother] Penei got to play in it I think two years ago. And now I'm here and I'm just taking advantage of the whole opportunity."
Is there any one standout moment from this past season where it's the moment you guys clicked?
"I think it was our team meeting after the passing of Aaron Lowe. We had a team meeting and kind of discussed how we want to be remembered. You know, obviously, it wasn't the start we wanted, but that didn't affect what our goal was. And our goal was to win the Pac-12. And I think in that moment when we all came together and shared what we think, what tying with every one of us and what we do, that's where we all clicked together."
What's it like representing Utah in its first Rose Bowl appearance?
"It means a lot. You know, Utah is one of the schools that I actually wanted to come to out of high school but I wasn't presented the opportunity at the time. But here I am now and just trying to show everyone what our culture is at Utah football and also trying to show that we can compete with other teams."
What's it like to finish your career at the Rose Bowl?
"It's a blessing. You know, reflecting on my whole journey, especially within the last week or two with my family, making my decision. It's been a long time coming. But you can't help but smile throughout it all, you know? And ups and downs, just like everything in this world, nothing's ever going to be perfect. But I'm just grateful to be here and end it off with the Granddaddy of Them All, as they would say."
What has been the key for this defense to perform at this level?
"I think it's, really, everyone owning their 20 square feet. Not doing more than what they're asked for. You know, in our defense, you have an assignment. And, usually, if everyone does their assignment, even though we may not make a play, the play will happen. I think everyone is selfless. If someone else makes a play, everyone is happy, you know? And at the end of the day, that's what we're doing."
Junior Defensive End Mika Tafua
How great is it to be here? After the season you've had, now you're at the Rose Bowl, it's a reality, right?
"It's exciting. Just grateful to be here. We had the Disneyland experience. That was pretty fun. And just being around with the boys, going to all these different events has been fun for us."
Defensively what's been the key to you guys this season?
"Playing fast, physical, assignment-sound. That's what it comes down to. If everyone's doing their job, then we'll come out with a victory. I feel like that's the case with any team. If everyone is doing their job, everyone's executing, they'll probably end up on top at the end of the game."
What's it like winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl?
"Winning the Pac-12 it was a great experience especially with all the adversity we went through this year, it was a great way to end the regular season. This is just a cherry on the top that we want."
You've obviously had practices back at home, but then you guys get here and you've got Disney and all these other fun things as a team, how hard is it to balance between having fun and focusing on this game?
"Basically, when it's time to work, it's time to work. When it's time to play, it's time to play. So just knowing the difference between the two plays a big part, especially like -- when it comes down to having leaders on the team, I'm not just talking about Devin and myself, but all around on the defense you find leaders, making sure that everyone knows the difference, when we step on the field, it's definitely time to work. And when we're in Disneyland, just relax a little bit. Wax Museum yesterday, relax."
Freshman Defensive Tackle Junior Tafuna
What advice would you have for young players?
"All I've got to say is believe in yourself and keep working. There's only so much you can do and so much you can grow to be. You've just got to keep continuing through the hard stuff. Just keep grinding, even when you're getting pushed around, falling down, and pancaked, it doesn't matter. Just keep pushing through, and you'll get through it. All the work you do, you'll reap the rewards."
Did you go on any rides at Disneyland?
"Yeah, I went on a lot. Kind of milked it in. My favorite was probably Splash Mountain."
What's it like being here for the activities knowing the game is right around the corner Saturday?
"Knowing it's around the corner and the activities, it's overwhelming, but it's definitely rewarding. You get to enjoy the experience. Just have a good time. At the end of the week, end of the day, we have a game to play. That's our main goal, and that's our only goal. We're grateful for it."
What's it like being a defensive lineman at Utah with such prestige and so much expected of you guys?
"It's an honor. I don't know how to explain it. I guess it's just so much people looking up to you. We have a lot to hold for because there's a bunch of D tackles coming through Utah that look up to us, and expect us to do what we do. At the end of the day, I feel like it's all love. They believe in us, and we believe in ourselves. I'm just grateful for it."
What kind of honor is it being named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year?
"It means a lot to me, not only to me, but to our defensive tackle room. I couldn't do it without my brothers in that room and my coach. So I'd say that award is for all of us. It's an honor, but at the end of the day, there's always another game, always another day to get better. Just grateful for every opportunity I've had."
What's it like winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl?
"That feeling was amazing. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You never know what you're going to get. I'm grateful for the opportunity. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think, man, we actually did that. I am just grateful for the opportunity that we did it. Coming here for the Rose Bowl, once again, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'm just thankful to be here and enjoy the experience and just capitalize on everything."