If it seems like Junior Salt has been around the Salt Lake Valley football scene forever, that’s only a little off. Even Kyle Whittingham, guessing off the top of his head, missed Salt’s age by two years.
Salt’s senior season at Brighton High? That would be 2006. He is 26 years old.
Freshman Jackson Barton played for the Bengals as well, but he was 12 when Salt went on his LDS Church mission to Tonga. Still, Barton said he’s dusted off Salt’s high school tape — he didn’t specify if he needed a VCR — to see what he could pick up.
In fact, a lot of the offensive linemen look up to Salt, a 6-foot-2, 315-pound bearded guard. He takes on the father figure role pretty naturally.
“The only time I played with my age group was in high school,” he said. “I’ve been one of the oldest guys on the team for a long time, so I’m used to it. I try to do the best I can do, and the guys follow me.”
These are the words that inevitably come up around Salt: Maturity. Leadership. Work ethic. He’s an all-business player at this point in his career. When the Pac-12 Network followed him around for a day during fall camp for a TV segment, it revealed his greatest vice is loading up his lunch plate with chicken and chili mac instead of broccoli.
In a season in which Utah’s offensive line play will be absolutely critical, in which young players are occupying important roles, Salt gives the unit a foundation and example it needs.
“We just expect our leaders to set the bar, then expect everybody else to meet the level that they set,” Whittingham said. “That’s the function of a leader: to set the bar and then rally the troops to rise to that level.”
Here’s the situation for the Utes this year: There are four guys back with starting experience, but only one of them — Jeremiah Poutasi at left tackle — will start in the same position he did last year. Salt switches from right guard to left, Isaac Asiata moves in to right guard, and Siaosi Aiono is heading into his first season at center. Right tackle J.J. Dielman is a first-time starter.
Although quarterback Travis Wilson’s season-ending medical condition last year was discovered to not necessarily be related to the hits he took in 2013, a concussion and a hand injury certainly were. The Utes, shifting around the line a bit over the course of the season, gave up 23 sacks.
Utah doesn’t want to let that happen this year. Wilson, making his return from what was feared would be a career-ending condition, has to stay upright. The Utes have been careful with Wilson, giving him live reps in the smallest of doses, but starting Aug. 28, it will be up to those five to protect him.
Although the Utes are depending on Poutasi to emulate the form he had as a freshman, Salt might be the most solid piece the team has up front. He led the team last year with 20 knockdowns.
Since returning from a hand injury this spring, he’s been everything the team hoped.
“He’s extremely physical. He finishes blocks,” offensive line coach Jim Harding said early in fall camp. “Now seeing him in the pads, it shows exactly what I saw on the film from last fall: that he’s a high-level player.”
Among teammates, he’s revered as the elder statesman. He’s befriended players on both sides of the ball. He’s among the top performers in the weight room, and doesn’t skip reps. And where others scream and shout to make themselves heard, Salt simply pulls players aside when they make mistakes.
He’d be the last one to yell.
“He’s not like a jerk, he’s like an older brother,” Barton said. “For the most part if you mess up, he’ll pull you aside, tell you what you did good, what you need to work on.”
For Salt, what also keeps the fire burning is the memory of all those close losses last year, when the Utes’ stamina seemed to fail them against Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State.
“We came close to winning a lot of games last year,” he said. “It came down to the last couple minutes, the last couple drives. I feel like this year, our team has definitely improved on that.”
No one needs to tell him he’s not a young man anymore: Salt feels it through his aching body.
He’s in the ice tub every day for at least a few minutes, soothing muscle soreness and easing strain on joints that have started to creak. He spends as much time in treatment as anyone healthy on the team.
It’s all part of the process. The Utes are expecting the offensive line to be something special this fall. Salt needs to help take them there however he can.
“He’s just a great kid, the kind you love to have in your program,” Whittingham said. “He’s the type of guy that does everything right.”
U.’s projected offensive line starters
LT Jeremiah Poutasi, Jr., 6-6, 320 • Most experienced starter with 22 in last three seasons, eight pancakes last year
LG Junior Salt, Sr., 6-2, 315 • Started all 12 games at right guard in 2013, led with 20 knockdowns
C Saiosi Aiono, Jr., 6-2, 305 • Started eight games at right tackle last year, playing center for the first time
RG Isaac Asiata, Soph., 6-4, 310 • Started three games at right tackle in 2013, can play tackle or guard
RT J.J. Dielman, Soph., 6-5, 295 • First-year starter, only game action against Weber State in 2013