Utah football: Utes look to fill pass rushing void left by Trevor Reilly
It’s no surprise that defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki — once a competitive MMA fighter — likes to cite motivational quotes from martial arts icon Bruce Lee.
Junior Jason Fanaika knows it by heart: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks one time, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."
It serves as a reminder for the Ute defensive linemen: Work on what you do well, and make it perfect. It’s as a whole that the team’s defensive ends form a multi-talented arsenal that can do a lot of different things.
Hunter Dimick, for example, can bowl blockers over with his stoutness and power, while Pita Taumoepenu’s pure speed and quickness give him an edge. Fanaika moves fluidly for his 6-foot-3, 270-pound size and can also play defensive tackle with his strength, while Greg Reese’s length from the right side gives him leverage against tackles.
Senior Nate Orchard is the leader, the classic strong, quiet type who shows them all how it’s done, and that cumulative group is why the Utes aren’t all too worried about starting the season without their top three sack leaders from last year.
When asked who will lead the team in sacks, Orchard simply shakes his head from side to side.
"The defense, that’s all that matters," he said. "We’re trying to lead the nation in sacks."
It almost happened last year, but this year, such a feat looks trickier on paper.
Any team that faces as many spread, pass-first offenses as the Utes do in conference play should get their fair share of sacks. Last year, the U. piled up 39 sacks for the second-most in the nation, with 80 total tackles for a loss.
But Trevor Reilly, one of the program’s all-time leaders in sacks (tied for fifth with 20 in his career), is playing this fall with the New York Jets. The Utes will also be without current NFLer Tenny Palepoi (4.5 sacks) and begin the season minus injured linebacker Jacoby Hale (6.5 sacks).
So who is the next great Utah pass rusher? That question doesn’t likely have just one answer. In the past, the Utes often lined up Reilly where they wanted the pressure to be. Now they’re relying on the group to lean on the personnel’s different strengths every game. Some games it could be Orchard. Sometimes it could be Dimick or Fanaika. Taumoepenu, at this point a situational rusher, could be the guy leading the team in sacks one game.
There’s a Swiss Army Knife-like makeup to the group that makes it collectively strong, Fanaika said. Keeping up competition between each other drives them to each do their respective jobs well.
"Playing against those other guys, it really just kicks my butt, I’m just going to be honest," he said. "I know I need to come in, get my head to the wheel and play sound."
Fall camps have also given glimpses into the different ways the Utes will align their ends. Coaching creativity could be a huge factor in whether Utah can keep its sack totals up this season.
With the exception of Reese, all of the ends can rush from either side, and Orchard, Fanaika, Dimick and Reese have packages where they play defensive tackle spots. Taumoepenu is also getting reps at stud linebacker, a position he said doesn’t come fully naturally to him but which could get him on the field more.
There’s a legacy to preserve here: Utah’s defensive line has long been respected and feared, and it’s one of the things the Utes have done well in the Pac-12.
There may be one great pass rusher among this group, but for now, the plan is for each of them to do their part to wrap up quarterbacks. Each man is honing his particular skill, waiting for his opportunity.
Sack artist wanted
The Utes have a few defensive ends they feel can help replace the sack production Trevor Reilly provided last year:
Senior Nate Orchard » Had 3.5 sacks last year, five forced fumbles in career, likely to play most snaps this fall.
Junior Jason Fanaika » Transfer from Utah State, had two TFL in 2011, last as an Aggie.
Sophomore Hunter Dimick » Had 2 sacks last year, could see more pass rushing reps at right end.
Sophomore Pita Taumoepenu » Had a sack last year, totaled 25 sacks in only season of high school football.
Senior Greg Reese » Switched from tight end in spring, likely to see right side reps.