Sione Po’uha will always remember coaching in the Army-Navy football game, experiencing a major part of America’s sports culture. The 48 hours that followed that event may be equally unforgettable.
The former Utah and NFL defensive lineman spent an agonizing Saturday night after fielding coach Kyle Whittingham’s offer to join the Ute staff after one season at Navy. The decision required “a lot of choice-making skills that I had to resurrect and use,” Po’uha said Monday, after being named to replace Gary Andersen, who’s now Utah State’s head coach.
Whittingham’s history of dealing with staff vacancies is either to fill them immediately or wait until recruiting ends in early February. He acted more quickly than ever this past weekend.
Po’uha, 39, mainly will coach the defensive tackles, after holding that position on Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s staff during the Midshipmen’s 2018 season that ended Saturday with a 17-10 loss to Army in Philadelphia. He will share the overall line responsibilities with Lewis Powell, who specializes with the defensive ends, and help the Utes prepare for the Dec. 31 Holiday Bowl vs. Northwestern.
An eight-year NFL veteran with the New York Jets, Po’uha coached as a student assistant for the Utes in 2015-16 and was the program’s director of football player development in 2017. The East High School graduate was a mainstay of Utah’s 12-0 team in 2004 as a defensive tackle.
“Sione Po’uha, he’s like a guru for defensive linemen,” said Ute end Bradlee Anae.
“It's great to have Sione back in our program,” Whittingham said in a statement, citing “the impact he will have in our recruiting.”
That started Monday night. Po’uha was scheduled to fly to Hawaii this week to recruit for Navy, with a layover in Salt Lake City. As it turned out, he landed in his hometown to stay. “I’ve already had the mantra to be opportunity-ready,” he said. “You never know what opportunities come your way … The fact that it’s home is a pretty sweet deal.”
Now that he's working again for Utah State, Gary Andersen will resume his status as the only coach outside of the Pac-12 who has beaten Utah during the school's eight seasons of conference membership.
Because the Aggies and Utes are not currently scheduled to meet in the future, that 1-0 record will remain intact. Andersen also will have a legacy at Utah after his one-season return to the program, having aided in the development of two All-Pac-12 defensive tackles, both juniors: first-team selection Leki Fotu and second-team pick John Penisini.
Andersen worked directly with the two tackle positions, with productive players Hauati Pututau and Pita Tonga also in the rotation. Fotu is tied for fourth on the team with three sacks and has made 5½ tackles for loss. All season, Penisini was listed among the Pac-12′s highest-graded defensive players by Pro Football Focus. He ranks fifth on the team with seven tackles for loss (including two sacks) and blocked a Washington field goal in the Pac-12 championship game.
“It's just crazy, because I didn't think I was going to do all this, but [Andersen] taught us a lot,” Penisini said.
“His knowledge and his coaching experience helped us a lot, especially in the D-tackle area,” Fotu said.
The linemen were disappointed Saturday when Andersen told a few of them in person that he was headed to USU, but they’re looking forward to working with Pouha. Former teammates such as Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi endorsed Pouha, who learned from that experience as a student coach. “Football’s in my DNA,” Po’uha said, “but coaching and playing football are two different things. It’s the same field, but it’s a different career. That’s an art that I continue to strive to learn, but with coach Whittingham and coach Niumatalolo, I don’t think you could ask for two better mentors.”
Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky was named to the AP All-America second team and kicker Matt Gay made the third team, announced Monday.
Wishnowsky has averaged 45.1 yards as a senior and Gay has made 24 of 29 field goals, including a school-record 6-of-6 game against Oregon.
The Utes will oppose Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher, a third-team selection, in the Holiday Bowl. Utah faced two first-team picks in a combined three games, producing a total of two offensive touchdowns. Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven made 11 tackles in a 21-7 win in September and 10 tackles in a 10-3 victory in the Pac-12 championship game. Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith posted eight tackles, including two sacks, in the Huskies' 17-6 loss to Utah in September.