Depth and experience has been a common theme for most of the positions on the field, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. At defensive tackle, Utah lost a productive player in Pasoni Tasini, though the position got a boost when Lowell Lotulelei decided to come back for his senior season. The fact that the Utes return only two players with significant playing experience is concerning, though Utah generally has a solid defensive interior, even when inexperienced. Lotulelei will not participate in spring practices, and it is likely that Filipo Mokofisi will see limited reps as the staff will try to coach up the young, inexperienced players and get them ready to play meaningful snaps in the fall.
Lowell Lotulelei had a down season due to nagging injuries, but he was still finished third on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. He showed improved pass rushing skills, recording 3.5 sacks. Lotulelei is an early-round NFL talent and will start for his fourth consecutive season.
Filipo Mokofisi started at tackle and end last year, finishing third on the team with 5 sacks. Mokofisi is better as an interior player, but he has enough speed and quickness to not be a liability on the edge. He showed improvement holding up against double-team blocks last season and has turned into a solid all-around player.
Leki Fotu didn’t make much of an impact on the stat sheet, recording a lone tackle in five games played, but the showed the potential that makes him an intriguing prospect. Fotu is massive, tall for a defensive tackle at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 318 pounds. Despite the size, Fotu moves well and is athletic enough to not surrender leverage. He needs to show improved technique, especially playing gaps against the run.
Alani Havili-Katoa played in 12 games last season, mostly on special teams. He finished with 4 tackles in limited playing time on defense. Havili-Katoa needs to improve in every aspect, as he was too easily pushed around in the run game and didn’t generate much push against the pass. If he can learn and execute technique, he could develop into a solid player.
Hauati Pututau has generated some buzz in the offseason since returning from an LDS mission. A former high school linebacker and receiver, Pututau brings explosive potential to the interior of the defensive line. How quickly he picks up the intricacies of playing as a traffic player will determine how much playing time he sees. He could also see time out at defensive end in a hybrid role similar to how the Utes use Mokofisi. If he plays to his potential, Pututau will be beneficial to a defensive line that looks thin on paper.
Pita Tonga also recently returned from an LDS mission and cousin of Mokofisi. Like his cousin, Tonga can play either tackle or end, though his best fit is inside as a tackle. He has the potential to turn into a very similar all-around player as Mokofisi.
Vaha Vainuku has yet to show he has overcome the foot injury that forced him to redshirt in 2015. He did play limited snaps in two games last season, but did not record any stats. A former all-state offensive lineman for East, Vainuku has not had an easy transition to defense. He has the potential to be a solid contributor, and if healthy, his combination of size and strength (best bench press on the team) is intriguing.
Utah’s starting pair of Lotulelei and Mokofisi is as solid as any in the conference, and a three-tackle rotation with Fotu should be excellent. Utah needs another tackle – probably two – to step up and show they can be counted on in games. Utah would prefer to have a five-man rotation, which would allow them to not just rotate to keep players fresh, but play personnel and down-and-distance matchups as well.
Experience is an issue at defensive tackle as beyond Lotulelei and Mokofisi, the defensive tackles have a small handful of snaps, and even fewer productive snaps. The buzz around Pututau is something that hasn’t been seen in a while, making him a player to watch during the spring.