The West Jordan Jaguars were losing by 35 points late in the game, but defensive lineman John Penisini kept playing so relentlessly that the opposing coach became frustrated enough to order one more touchdown pass.
The coach apologized afterward to West Jordan’s Danny DuPaix, using the illogical explanation that Penisini’s unwavering effort “got me fired up.”
Label that episode an unintended consequence of Penisini's drive, the trait that has made him a valuable defensive tackle for Utah. He ranks third on the team with five tackles for loss in six games, and that statistic only begins to describe how well he's doing his job as a junior.
The website Pro Football Focus, with an army of analysts studying every play for FBS teams, made Penisini one of the Pac-12's five highest-graded defensive players through six weeks of the season. PFF labeled him “dominant” during his 32 snaps per game as part of Utah's rotation of tackles.
The Pac-12′s highest-graded defensive players through Week 6 of the season, according to Pro Football Focus:
89.1 – Nate Landman, LB, Colorado.
89.0 – Ben Burr-Kirven, LB, Washington.
89.0 – Justin Hollins, DE, Oregon.
88. 2 – Evan Weaver, LB, California.
87.7 – John Penisini, DT, Utah.
86.8 – Taylor Rapp, S, Washington.
84.8 – Cameron Smith, LB, USC.
84.2 – Jordan Kunasyk, LB, California.
84.1 – Troy Dye, LB, Oregon.
83.3 – Mustafa Johnson, DT, Colorado.
“You watch him practice, and it’s no surprise,” said Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “He gets after it. Those guys are usually productive — high-motor guys that care and have the power and explosion he does, they’re going to make plays.”
That's what he did in West Jordan's program, then in a rebuilding stage. “He was a monster for us,” said DuPaix, who's now the offensive coordinator at Southern Virginia University. “You could tell that he was something special.”
Penisini played for WJ only as a senior in 2014, but DuPaix credits him with influencing the program even now. His presence in the weight room made an impact on future Jaguars, as coaches would bring junior high students to the school in hopes of encouraging them to stay in their boundaries.
Gary Andersen, then Oregon State's coach and now Penisini's position coach at Utah, was among the first recruiters to discover him. Andersen and Ilaisa Tuiaki, then OSU's defensive coordinator, offered him a scholarship but hoped to keep him a secret, knowing Penisini initially would have to attend a junior college for academic reasons.
But after Penisini posted OSU’s offer on social media, Scalley immediately called DuPaix to ask about him. Utah was where he wanted to go, and he stuck with the Utes through two years at Snow College. Penisini redshirted in his second season in Ephraim, having injured his shoulder and wanting to preserve a year’s eligibility at Utah. “He had a mature plan,” DuPaix said.
“I got myself back on track,” said Penisini, who thrived academically in Snow’s program for first-generation college students. “It’s a blessing.”
Penisini played regularly for Utah last year and blossomed this season, after Ute coach Kyle Whittingham suggested he lose about 15 pounds. “He’s a svelte 315 now, which is prime weight for him,” Whittingham said. “He’s tough, he’s active, he plays with great pad level. He’s got great, natural use of hands. He’s strong at the point of attack, he’s a slippery pass rusher. I think he’s one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the conference.”
Penisini is not one of the Utes' most glamorous defensive players, and he's not even a starter. He's not a self-promoter, either. Requested for a post-practice interview this week, he brought the other defensive tackles: starters Leki Fotu and Pita Tonga and backup Hauati Pututau. Tonga and Pututau have two of Utah's five interceptions and end Bradlee Anae leads the team with 6½ sacks. But no defensive tackle has made nearly as many tackles as Penisini's 18.
And the linebackers appreciate how he occupies blockers, freeing them to make plays. “He's fun to play behind, because he holds double-teams,” said Cody Barton, who made a point of watching him during Monday's film session. “He does a great job. He's super strong. It doesn't look like he moves fast, but he's really quick.”
And he never stops competing. These days, that attribute is only helping his team.
USC AT UTAH
When • Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Networks