Not that he has to even consider it, but Kyle Whittingham does not pause when asked one of the many questions that tend to recirculate during interviews. Because by now, it’s a given, an obvious answer.
“What do you feel like your most solidified position group is at the moment?”
“Defensive line,” Whittingham says a split-second later.
To absolutely no one’s surprise.
On a defensive front that seemingly gets annually replenished with next-level talent, this year’s defensive line is on par with some of the best the Utes have had in recent memory, coaches say. Whittingham calls starting defensive tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi two of the top-end inside tackles in the nation. He has credited defensive end Kylie Fitts, back from a season-ending injury in 2016, with the same designation.
This season, Whittingham said he feels Utah is six-deep at defensive tackle and five-deep at defensive end, meaning the annual embarrassment of riches is set to be on full display once again this fall in Pac-12 play.
Beyond Utah’s three returning seniors on the front line, however, is a myriad of newcomers and youngsters raring to chip in and join the legacy. Sophomore end Bradlee Anae is the incumbent on the left side and will try to help the Utes replace the nearly irreplaceable Hunter Dimick, the school’s all-time sack leader.
“I feel obligated to show people what I could and what I could do for this defense and that these coaches can rely on me,” Anae said.
The 19-year-old from Laie, Hawaii, played sparingly in 2016, recording four tackles and two sacks in six games as a true freshman. A year into the system, Anae said he has a much better feel for the tempo and pace of his position. It helps, too, that he’s reached his target weight of 260 pounds and improved his speed-rushing ability off the edge.
“I took a lot from it as far as how be a great pass-rusher, run-defender [and] just a good defensive end overall and how to play in games consistently,” Anae said after playing behind the likes of Fitts, Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu.
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said Anae has polished facets of his game, which a year ago was raw around the edges. A year ago, there wasn’t much technique to Anae. This season, opposing offensive tackles might encounter a different player.
“He’s paid so much more to the fundamentals and techniques of playing defensive end, and he’s making more plays because of it,” Scalley said. “He’s always had that high motor, it’s just taming it a little bit and adding some technique.”
While Anae is expected to round out the starting front four, a sophomore in his first year in the program has received rave reviews for his assimilation into the program’s most-stocked position. John Penisini, a transfer from Snow College who grew up in West Jordan, has worked his way into the rotation, Scalley said.
Penisini, who did not play in 2016, is adapting quickly due to similar terminology and scheme used during his time at Snow, Scalley said. The 6-foot-2, 320-pound tackle, like Anae was a year ago, is staying within earshot of the guys in front of him like Lotulelei and Mokofisi.
“They just teach me proper technique, because I’ve been out for a year,” Penisini said. “They’ve taught me everything I need to know.”
It seems Whittingham and Co. have acquired another prototypical middle-of-the-line presence.
“He’s a load up front,” Whittingham said of Penisini. “He’s a typical Utah defensive tackle. A block-eater. He can’t be single-blocked. You’ve got to double-team him and he’s just a sophomore, so he’s got a lot of good years ahead of him.”
“We just keep trying to recruit those guys that can stop the run,” Scalley added. “He fits that mold.”
As do more names expected to chip in.
The likes of redshirt freshman defensive tackle Hauati Pututau, freshman defensive tackle Pita Tonga, sophomore defensive tackle Leki Fotu, sophomore defensive end Caleb Repp and freshman defensive end Maxs Tupai are among those in the rotation Whittingham spoke glowingly of.
“We’ve got good players, good leaders and that’s how these guys are able to benefit,” Scalley said.
AT A GLANCE
Young Utes aim to round out already-stacked defensive line:
Height » 6-foot-3
Weight » 260 pounds
Position » Defensive end
Class » Sophomore
Hometown » Laie, Hawaii
Height » 6 -foot-2
Weight » 307 pounds
Class » Sophomore
Hometown » West Jordan
Height » 6-foot-5
Weight » 323 pounds
Position » Defensive tackle
Class » Sophomore
Hometown » Herriman
More youngsters who could rotate in: Freshman DT Pita Tonga, freshman DT Hauati Pututau, freshman DE Maxs Tupai sophomore DE Caleb Repp,