Kylie Fitts tugs at his shoulder pads with one of his massive hands. In the other, he dangles his crimson Utah helmet. It’s one of the final practices of the year, and for members of Utah’s 2017 senior class, one of the last ever on campus. Fitts has his No. 11 jersey on. His gloves, too.
He eventually fields a question he’s not only heard repeatedly over the last month, but one that unfortunately has resonated for the last two years of the defensive end’s collegiate career.
Does Fitts — the 6-foot-4, 260-pound prototype pass-rusher whose final two years with the Utes has been hamstrung by injuries — think he’ll be able to suit up one last time?
HEART OF DALLAS BOWL
Utah vs. West Virginia
When • Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. MST
TV • ESPN
“Yeah, I’m feeling really good,” he said as he adjusts his pads once more. “I’m making good progress, so I think I should be good.”
Dropping down onto the line, anticipating a snap count and raring to let loose against West Virginia in the 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl on December 26 would mean everything to Fitts. And that’s an understatement, he said. The senior defensive end from San Bernadino, Calif., missed four games in 2017 due to various injuries after suffering a season-ending foot injury after just two starts in 2016.
“It’s definitely been hard on me,” he said.
Fitts, when healthy, proved to be the next in a long line of dominant edge pass rushers on a Utah defensive line synonymous with charging to the quarterback. His blend of size and speed followed in the mold of previous star sack artists like Hunter Dimick, Nate Orchard and Trevor Reilly. It’s no coincidence that as Fitts struggled with injuries, Utah’s sack numbers plummeted in 2017.
After wrestling a quarterback to the ground seven times in his first year at Utah in 2015, Fitts finished his injury-riddled junior and senior years with a combined 4.5 sacks.
“It’s more frustrating than anything else and more frustrating for the player, obviously, if you have guys that come through and just seem to have a hard time staying healthy,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s been unfortunate for Kylie where he’s been banged up a lot of his career here, but we’re grateful for every snap that he’s been able to play for us, because like I said, he’s really good.”
It was tough walking out of the tunnel on Senior Night in street clothes surrounded by loved ones.
It was unbearable missing the last two games of the regular season.
When he went down awkwardly in the loss to Washington State on November 11, he thought it was over.
The weeks since the season ended have provided time for Fitts to mend. The timing of the Heart of Dallas bowl game gave the Utah coaching staff and Fitts hope that he’d be able to recover in time. So when Utah sprinted by Colorado in the regular-season finale to become bowl-eligible, Fitts realized he, likely, had one more game.
“Getting another chance to go out with my teammates, getting a chance to go out with another chance with the guys on the D-line one more time, that’s going to be a big blessing,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Arriving in Utah in 2014 — Fitts transferred from UCLA and redshirted a year — allowed him the fresh perspective he sought out. The program, he explained, took him in, and gave him another shot to prove himself. While a portion of his legacy at Utah will be that of bad luck striking over and over, one last game could allow him a shot to prove to NFL scouts what he can do when healthy.
“Obviously it’s awesome we get him back,” senior defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi said. “He’s had a long, hard career with multiple injuries hurting him and his ability to play, but I’m happy we get to end it off with a game, and hopefully, a win.”
On November 20, Fitts accepted an invite to the 2018 Senior Bowl, scheduled to be played on January 27 in Mobile, Ala.
“It was an easy decision,” he said. “It’s the biggest college bowl game there is. It’s just another chance for me to go out, play and show my abilities. I didn’t really get that many games to show my abilities this year, so it’d be a big opportunity for me.”
After one of his final practices, Fitts looked out at his teammates conducting various media interviews. Then he’s asked about his career, if it went anything according to script and what he’ll remember most about his time on the line.
“It went by fast,” he said. “Not the way I wanted it to go, with so many injuries and ups and downs, but I had fun.”