Utah coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t one to brag about his team, but even he can’t resist the temptation of boasting about his defensive line, which he thinks could be the best defensive front in the league.
Those might be fighting words, especially considering the Utes are still newcomers to a BCS conference. But it is hard to imagine the Utes not living up to expectations.
Utah’s defensive line was one of the best in the Pac-12 last year and was the main reason the Utes were at or near the top of the conference defensive stats.
While Utah lost starters Tevita Finau and Derrick Shelby, returning is Star Lotulelei — a defensive tackle who many believe would have been taken high in the 2011 draft if he left the Utes early — as well as Kruger brothers Joe and Dave.
The Utes also added Junior Salt, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound transfer from Mt. San Antonio College who is competing with Dave Kruger for a starting role. Other backups who should see a lot of playing time are Viliseni Fauonuku, LT Tuipulotu and Tenny Palepoi.
“Our defensive line is going to be our strength, there is no doubt about that,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got a lot of talent coming back and some good young talent coming up.”
The only place the Utes lack much experience is at left end. Sophomore Nate Fakahafua is slated to start, with Thretton Palamo and Hunter Dimick behind him. Palamo, a former rugby player turned running back turned defensive player, has improved as a football player since joining the defense.
Even at that spot Whittingham said he is confident the newcomers can perform up to Utah’s usually high standards.
“They don’t have much experience, but the cupboard isn’t bare,” he said.
Lotulelei’s decision to return for his senior year was critical for the Utes as well as for himself. He said he spoke with Sealver Siliga, the former Ute who opted for the 2011 draft as a junior despite his coaches’ recommendation he stay in school.
Siliga was undrafted and only now may be making headway with Denver.
“I talked to him a lot, and what he said made a big difference for me,” Lotulelei said. “The main thing he told me was how much he missed the team thing, he missed the family feeling of Utah.”
Lotulelei says he has no regrets about his decision and is eager to get on the field with the Utes. “I know I can still improve my game,” he said. “I’ve been working hard this summer, and I’m ready.”
The interesting position for the Utes is the other tackle spot, where Dave Kruger and Salt are competing for the starting role. Kruger has started the last three years and bulked up over the summer to enter his last year with 300 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame.
But Salt, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound junior college transfer, is good enough to compete with Kruger for the starting role.
For his part, Kruger said he doesn’t mind the competition.
“Honestly, every year I feel like I’ve been pushed,” he said. “Every year we have good guys coming up and competing with us.”
In reality, it doesn’t matter so much who starts because the Utes often rotate their linemen so much, which is what really makes the Utes dangerous, Kruger said.
In many games last year Kruger said he felt the Utes were able to wear down offenses in the second half. He expects more of the same this year.
“Not to get on my high horse, but we do have a lot of talent,” Kruger said. “We’ve got a lot of experience and we talked about this, the guys who are new are knowledgeable in the game so we have even more depth this year than last year.”
Where U. defense ranked in Pac-12
Category Average per game Rank
Rushing defense 113.54 yards 3
Pass defense 237.38 yards 4
Pass efficiency 116.48 rating 1
Total defense 350.92 yards 3
Scoring defense 20.23 points 1