Nate Orchard comes across as one of the friendliest guys on Utah’s football team, punctuating virtually every sentence with an easy laugh and big smile.
But make no mistake: the junior defensive end has a fairly gnarly mean streak in him — at least when he is on the hunt for quarterbacks.
“There is no better feeling in the world than getting a sack,” Orchard said this week, the big grin ever-present. “That’s when you know all your hard work has paid off.”
Orchard’s work is paying off well for him of late. An honorable mention All-Pac-12 conference player in 2012, Orchard has 3.5 sacks this year and is tied for second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss.
His best game came against Stanford, when he had two sacks, two forced fumbles and five total tackles.
His play this year prompted coach Kyle Whittingham to call him a “complete player.”
“We’ve been waiting for this for a couple of years,” Whittingham said. “Last year, he did a lot of good things, but some weeks weren’t as consistent as others. He’s been very consistent for us this year.”
Orchard, who attended nearby Highland High School, attributed his success to his teammates. Utah’s defensive line has lived up to the expectation it would be the strength of the defense this season. The Utes lead the Pac-12 with 33 sacks, with 23.5 of them credited to the line.
“It’s not my performance, but all the guys coming together,” he said. “When everyone is doing their assignments, it opens up gaps for me and the other guys to make plays.”
Playing opposite of Orchard at right end is senior Trevor Reilly, who like Orchard is having a standout year, with seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss.
The duo give opponents few options outside, while Tenny Palepoi anchors the middle.
It’s a formidable lineup, and Orchard says he is simply happy to have a role. Earlier this season he acknowledged he put added pressure on himself to play well, then realized going into the Stanford game he just needed to loosen up and play the way his instincts told him to do so. He didn’t need to over-think the game, he just needed to play hard.
“Every day we all come in and work hard,” Orchard said. “The coaches have high expectations and we do to. I always have high expectations of myself.”
The solid play up front has made life easier for the more inexperienced players in Utah’s linebacker corp. and secondary.
“They really shut down the defensive front and get pressure on the quarterback,” linebacker Jason Whittingham said of the line. “It makes it a lot easier for us to do our jobs.”
The Utes will need another huge performance out of the line come Saturday when they face No. 6 Oregon. The Ducks are coming off last week’s crushing loss at Stanford, but are still third nationally in scoring, averaging 51.7 points per game.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the dynamo that makes Oregon’s offense go, but his running ability has been hampered by a knee injury.
The Ducks have also shuffled their offensive line in the hopes it can play more consistently.
The injury and personnel changes make the Ducks about as vulnerable an Oregon team as Utah could hope for, though it is still a very tall order.
Utah’s secondary is playing better, but the Utes don’t want to give Mariota much time to test that improvement, preferring to stop Mariota and the Ducks at the line before the game becomes a “track meet,” Whittingham said.
“You can’t let them get into the open field,” he said.
Utah’s defense has played well in similar recent matchups. Orchard sees no reason as to why the defense can’t do it again on Saturday.
“Going into that environment is going to be fun and totally different,” he said. “But we know it takes a whole defense to get to the quarterback. We’ll be ready.”
Utah’s defensive line by the numbers
Player Tackles TFL Sacks Pass breakups Forced fumbles
Trevor Reilly 78 13.5 7.0 2 1
Nate Orchard 42 8.5 3.5 1 3
Tenny Palepoi 39 7.0 3.5 0 0
LT Tuipolutu 28 3.0 1.5 1 1
Utah at No. 6 Oregon
P Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • Fox Sports 1