Utah football: Young offensive linemen say they have Utah QB's back covered
Former Utah offensive linemen John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom struck a commanding presence as they stood on the sidelines chatting with fans and other former teammates during a recent football practice.
Nearby, a group of nondescript offensive linemen were grunting and pushing their way through the workout.
The scene was a good reminder of what the Utes had and don't have as they prepare for the 2012 season.
The Utes had two NFL-hopeful players in Cullen and Bergstrom to protect their quarterbacks last season.
This year? Right now the left tackle position is held by Percy Taumoelau, a junior with limited experience in two years. Daniel Nielson, a redshirt freshman out of Hurricane, is penciled in at right tackle.
With the need to protect often-injured quarterback Jordan Wynn such a priority for the Utes, it's no wonder that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is emphasizing the need to develop depth along the offensive line.
"That is our No. 1 priority," he said. "We've got to figure out who those guys are going to be."
Backing the two tackles now are freshman Kala Friel and junior Kapua Sai.
There is a chance that none of the current players could be the starters come August. The Utes signed 15 linemen altogether in their 2012 class. Whittingham believes as many as six of those could step in and have an immediate impact.
Among the offensive linemen the Utes are eager to have on the field are junior-college transfers Junior Salt, a 6-foot-2, 340-pound player who prepped at Brighton High and was headed to Florida before changing his commitment to Utah; Marc Pouvave, a 6-foot-4, 336-pound junior from Southwestern College; and Carlos Lozano, a 6-6, 385-pounder out of East L.A. College.
Two true freshmen who could be in the mix are Hiva Lutui, a high-school All-American out of Euless, Texas, and Jeremiah Poutasi, a 6-5, 322-pounder out of Las Vegas.
Whittingham obviously had those guys in mind when he discussed the status of the line.
"It's a work in progress and we won't have the depth solidified until fall, even two weeks into camp," he said. "We have to see how it shakes out. Right now we have to develop the line fundamentally. We need a line that is physical and has great size."
Whittingham felt the offensive line's size, or lack of it, was one of the biggest weaknesses the Utes had in 2011.
The Utes gave up 31 sacks for 205 yards despite being a ground-oriented team. The main concern, though, is keeping Wynn on the field, something he has yet to be able to do for a whole season.
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Wynn made a big effort to gain muscle and strength while he was rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder in an effort to make himself more durable, but that doesn't mean the Utes will leave him exposed frequently.
"It's a quarterback-driven league, with some of the top offenses in the country, so we have to have the right guys in there," offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said.
While everyone might be looking to the fall camp for the answers, Nielson and Taumoelau say they feel capable of managing the duties themselves but believe participating in spring ball is helping them.
"We know we have to protect Jordan and we're always working on stuff," Taumoelau said. "We know we have to work on our footwork, get faster and protect Jordan."
Nielson said he already feels a difference in himself from last year.
"Last year I felt like I was over my head," he said. "This year the plays are coming to me a lot easier. You never know when your chance is going to come, but hopefully the coaches will trust me and I'll get some opportunities."
Utah offensive line
• Percy Taumoelau (6-4, 315, Jr)
• Kala Friel (6-4, 305, Fr)
• Jeremiah Tofaeono (6-2, 317, Jr)
• Miles Mason (6-3, 312, Sr)
• Tevita Stevens (6-3, 302, Sr)
• Vyncent Jones (6-3, 300, Jr)
• Sam Brenner (6-4, 305, Sr)
• Latu Heimuli (6-2, 315, Jr)
• Daniel Nielson (6-6, 317, Fr)
• Kapua Sai (6-4, 316, Jr)
P Saturday, 1 p.m., Free admission at Rice-Eccles Stadium