For all the breathless anticipation surrounding the Utes’ quarterback decision — both before and after Tyler Huntley was named the starter last week — arguably the biggest question marks involve the offensive line.
The University of Utah football team’s identity has been largely forged in the trenches during Kyle Whittingham’s coaching tenure. The vaunted “O-block,” Utah’s collection of massive beings working in unison to unleash coordinated violence on opposing defenses, has provided a foundation for a smash-mouth offensive attack highlighted by a productive running attack that has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in seven of the past 10 seasons (three consecutive seasons).
However, the Utes lost four starters to the NFL as well as another to graduation who stepped into a starting role due to injury midway through last season. Those losses coupled with the shift to a pass-oriented attack under first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor have created doubt about whether the traditionally strong offensive line could become a weakness this season.
“A lot of people are doubting us right now, it’s no secret,” redshirt sophomore tackle Darrin Paulo said. “The two years I’ve been here, I think this is the tightest group we’ve had. We trust each other, and the communication is definitely better than the past years I’ve been here.”
Last year’s starting left tackle, first-round NFL draft pick Garett Bolles, was recently named the starter for the Denver Broncos, while Isaac Asiata (Dolphins), Sam Tevi (Chargers) and J.J. Dielman (Bengals) also are set to play on Sundays this fall.
The Utes’ lone returning starter, senior Salesi “Leka” Uhatafe, appears slated to move from right guard to left guard (the Utes’ depth chart is expected to be released on Monday). Junior and former local high school standout Jackson Barton will replace Bolles at left tackle. Senior Lo Falemaka projects to start at center next to highly recruited junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva at right guard and Paulo at right tackle.
“I think we have the talent, we just don’t have the experience,” assistant head coach/offensive line coach Jim Harding said after the team’s final intrasquad scrimmage of the preseason. “Going into the game last year, we probably had eight guys that you’d feel comfortable in the game. Right now today, I’d say I have seven guys I feel comfortable with. I think that we’re close on an eighth. … We just don’t have the experience and the snaps that those guys last year between Isaac and J.J. and Sam Tevi had under their belt. Everything we see is brand-new.”
The offensive line spent most of preseason camp in flux. Uhatafe, a three-year starter at guard, experimented with moving to tackle. Falemaka and Agasiva each sat out multiple days with injuries. Redshirt sophomore Paul Toala, a former walk-on, and sophomore Johnny Capra, who’d previously spent most of his time at tackle, took first-team reps at center.
Harding hopes he can let the starters focus on one position once the season starts, while the backups will need to learn multiple positions in order to fill in as needed.
Uhatafe claimed that shuffling positions throughout camp has actually benefited the group.
“I think that’s a big component of how well we’ve been gelling together, just communicating,” Uhatafe said. “There are some guys who are playing other positions, but they know another position really well. We’ll be on the line and they’ll be communicating what they need to do, little things like that.”
Playing time has been limited for the projected starters (28 total starts), but all except Agasiva have been in the program for multiple years. That familiarity has helped create a bond on and off the field closer than anything Paulo and Barton say they’ve seen in past year.
“We’ve got pretty good leadership with the O-line,” Barton said. “We set the standard pretty high up in the O-line room for these younger guys, and then they just follow suit. They just do their work, what needs to be done. I just feel like when we get to it we know what the standard is, and we know what to expect. Once everybody is on board with that, we just come together as a band of brothers.”
The passing game figures to be paramount in Taylor’s system. His offense last season at Eastern Washington passed for an average of 401 yards per game and rushed for 128.6 per game, whereas the Utes passed for 216.7 yards and rushed for 214 per game.
Harding and Paulo brushed off the idea that emphasis on passing might take away some of the aggressive mentality that’s typically synonymous with the offensive line of a running team, with Paulo saying, “ We’re definitely still dogs.”
“It’s somewhat of a concern,” Whittingham said. “You don’t want to lose your physicality, but I don’t think we have. I think we‘ve still got tough guys up front. They’re very physical, and the better you throw the ball the looser those defenses become and the more effective you can run the ball. So they play off of each other. You know, last year we’re gaining 1,400 yards with a kid that’s running into eight and nine-man fronts. This year, maybe 900-1,000 yards with not so tough of sledding inside.”
UTAH OFFENSIVE LINE
Projected starters for 2017
Jackson Barton, Jr., 6-foot-7, 312 pounds
Salesi Uhatafe, Sr., 6-foot-5, 320 pounds
Lo Falemaka, Sr., 6-foot-5, 287 pounds
Jordan Agasiva, Jr., 6-foot-4, 315
Darrin Paulo, Soph., 6-foot-5, 312 pounds