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Utah football: Palepoi eager to fill huge shoes on Utes' D line

Published April 6, 2013 5:52 pm

Utah football • Senior tackle will be called on to replace the Utes' famed Star Lotulelei.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tenny Palepoi doesn't feel any pressure.

You tend not to feel pressure coming from a football family with a history of playing in the NFL. Competing at the game for most of your life and excelling at each level tends to allow you to feel comfortable on the field. Being a defensive leader for Utah's rebuilding defense lends a confidence that might be lacking in a lesser player.

This is a good thing.

Palepoi, a rising senior defensive tackle for the Utes, will need all of the confidence he can muster because he's the man replacing Star Lotulelei, the biggest name in Utah football since Alex Smith. Lotulelei, the best defensive tackle in the country this past season, is expected to be a top-10 selection in the upcoming NFL draft.

That obviously means the defensive line will undergo changes, and Palepoi leads the new wave of Utes in that group. How he plays this season will go a long way toward determining the fate of Utah's defense.

"He's very important to us," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Tenny's going to have a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, but he's going to be good there. He's come a long way, and he's ready to make a big step."

No one player is going to replace Lotulelei for Utah. He regularly drew double teams in the middle last season, which allowed players like Nate Orchard and Joe Kruger to rush opposing quarterbacks without as much resistance as they normally would get. He was capable of heroic performances, like the one he pulled off against USC. He was a dominant factor even when he wasn't racking up dominant statistics.

At the same time, Palepoi can play in his own right. His brother Anton starred at Hunter High, then UNLV and played six years in the NFL on four teams. He has more than once said that his little brother has the skill to play at the next level.

The two are as close as siblings can be, products of the same game and the same position. If you venture into 24 Hour Fitness at any given time during the offseason, you can find the two working out together with a third brother, Daniel, putting in his time as well.

The results are obvious. Tenny is powerful and quick off the ball. When he gets his arms around a runner, that runner usually goes down. He didn't play much early last season, but he was a solid member of the rotation by the end of the year.

"It's a great thing to have the support of family," Tenny said. "Those are the guys who push me to be the best I can be. It's been great having Anton's knowledge. He's played in the league, so it's great to hear his teaching points. There's obviously a lot of pressure, but the talent coming in has eased a lot of that pressure. The D line is coming along really well."

The road has been a winding one for Tenny, from Skyline High to Snow College and finally to Utah. He almost committed to Gary Andersen and Utah State when he was recruited by Ilaisa Tuiaki. Now the two are working together after Tuiaki left the Aggies to come to the Utes last season, and he is entering his first year as Palepoi's position coach.

The two are as much friends as they are coach/player. They bounce ideas off each other, and their working relationship is fortified by their past.

"I remember it was hard getting the phone call from him telling me he was going to Utah," Tuiaki said. "Now I'm glad I didn't get him. He's been a leader, and that's a big thing for us. He's going to have a huge role going forward."

tjones@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tjonessltrib —

Tenny Palepoi file

• Is one of three brothers to star for three different area schools.

• Played two seasons at Snow College before transferring to Utah.

Had a season-high five tackles against Washington in 2012.