By Joel Davidson Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE
For the past 20 years, the linchpin of any Utah defense has been the lineman. The 2016 squad of trench combatants is loaded with talent and may prove to be the best yet. It is certainly the best position group on the team. Anchored by All-American candidate Lowell Lotulelei, the list of playmakers is deep and includes some intriguing true freshman as well. It will undoubtedly have opposing offensive coordinators reaching for the aspirin bottle all season. Let’s take a closer look.
The Lotulelei name is becoming synonymous with Utah defensive tackle. Like his brother Star before him, and presumably his cousin Hunter after, Lowell is a force in the middle that demands attention. His stat sheet reveals very little. You need only look at the stats of his teammates as they tend to reap the benefits of Lowell’s work through sacks, tackles-for-loss, and turnovers. Opposing teams can not risk putting a single body on Lowell, yet he still manages to be disruptive against two blockers. The numbers are in your favor if you have a guy that requires a double-team on almost every play. This may be Lowell’s last season in a Ute uniform, so enjoy it.
After missing four games in 2015 due to injury, Filipo Mokofisi is looking to stay healthy in 2016. At a slimmer 278 lbs, Mokofisi probably won’t get the same treatment as Lowell, but he is very agile for his size. Of the two, I expect him to penetrate the backfield a bit more for sacks and tackles-for-loss. With Stevie Tu'ikolovatu gone to USC and Lowell at his side, look for this to be a breakout year for Mokofisi. He completes the best defensive-tackle duo in the Pac-12 and an All-Conference level of play wouldn’t surprise me.
The defensive line always gets a heavy rotation during games. Utah likes to keep their big guys fresh which means depth plays a critical role. Senior Pasoni Tasini will be vying for more reps behind Mokofisi and Alani Havili-Katoa will play an important backup role behind Lotulelei. Both had a good spring, but neither have produced anything during games which is worth noting. The pressure will be high to remain in the second rotation.
After a mission and redshirt year, former East High standout Vaha Vainuku is itching to see what he can do on the other side of the ball. He should be ready to contribute during the 2016 season. Pita Tonga and Howard Pututau are fresh off their missions and will probably need to acclimate during fall camp. They may see some playing time though, especially if injuries become a factor.
After a monster 10 sack sophomore season in 2014, local product Hunter Dimick experienced frustrating injury setbacks. He was left looking on from the sidelines for half of his junior season. The blue-collared Dimick has a relentless motor combined with a balanced skill set and has proven to be effective against the pass as well as the run. His role is vital to the success of Utah’s defensive line group. Having his sights set on becoming Utah’s all-time sack leader, he’ll need to stay healthy and productive throughout the 2016 season. As a senior, look for Dimick to take a leadership role and bounce back to the days of old in hopes of earning a roster spot in the NFL.
I can’t imagine Kylie Fitts could have foreseen a better situation than he has put himself in since transferring from UCLA. After redshirting in 2014, he played in 13 games with 11 starts in 2015 and will get the nod to start every game in 2016. He led the Pac-12 with 4 forced fumbles and tallied 7 sacks. He also has a knack for batting down balls at the line of scrimmage, even blocking a field goal against Colorado. In the opening moments of the Vegas Bowl against BYU, Fitts made the initial play that opened the turnover floodgates. Look for him to improve in the run game after garnering only one additional tackle-for-loss outside of his sack numbers.
Despite his limited playing time, Pita Taumoepenu lead the conference in sacks early in the 2015 season and managed a QB pressure on almost a quarter of all pass snaps played. Because of his speed and athleticism, his best technique is ducking the offensive tackle and speed rushing the quarterback. It’s quite effective, but a good Pac-12 tackle with a quick kick-step/slide can counter. But as seen last year, Pita is adding some more moves to his pass-rushing repertoire which should help him get to the quarterback even more in 2016. Most would say, and coaches have been quoted saying, that Pita needs to see the field more. How do you do this with so much talent on the defensive line? Maybe they can add a fifth defensive lineman...but more on that later.
Utah recently released an updated depth chart leading up to the start of fall camp. Some, myself included, were surprised to see the absence of Chris Hart. Listed behind Kylie Fitts, was true freshman Maxs Tupai. After redshirting in 2015, Chris Hart had an impressive spring camp and was expected to play a substantial backup role heading into the season. Maxs Tupai is undoubtedly talented and is considered the surprise of the recruiting class. The depth chart may be an additional motivator for Hart, a testament to Tupai’s skills, or a simple nod to future recruits in the state. We may never know. Either way, expect to see both during the season.
Another new arrival I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the field is Leki Fotu out of Herriman High School. In terms of size, he is the Darrin Paulo of this year’s class and was probably underrated during the recruitment process. He isn’t just big though, he has an athletic body type. He is a bit raw though, so a redshirt is not out of the question. Bradlee Anae out of Hawaii is another interesting prospect, but is undersized at 229 lbs and I assume will redshirt to add some weight. Utah will likely lose most of their starters after the 2016 season and there is an impressive group of freshman waiting in the wings to step up in 2017.
The 5-Man Front
The Utes are feeling very confident in the secondary department. You have a handful of veteran cornerbacks, a rising star in Chase Hansen, and First-team All-Pac-12 safety Marcus Williams playing centerfield. But you have inexperience and/or unknowns at the linebacker position. Combine that with a bit of a logjam at the defensive end and you have first-year Defensive Coordinator Morgan Scalley toying with a bold 5-man defensive line. It’s a high risk/high reward gambit and expect it to only be used situationally. But it was quite effective during spring ball and should be an entertaining spectacle this fall.
Projected Post Fall Depth Chart