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Utes football defensive line anchored by the always strong Mika Tafua, and Maxs Tupai

Utes had the Pac-12′s top-ranked rushing defense in 2020

(Kory Mortensen | University of Utah Athletics) Defensive end Mika Tafua (42) participates in Utah football spring practice, Monday, March 15, 2021.

On paper, the University of Utah has a legitimate chance to win the Pac-12 South this fall, but that doesn’t mean the Utes don’t have a small handful of personnel questions.

Who’s the quarterback? How long will they go running back-by-committee? Are there enough options at wide receiver? Can the secondary overcome the losses of R.J. Hubert (injury) and Nate Ritchie (LDS mission)?

While some position groups have questions, one unit that doesn’t is the defensive line with the entire unit from 2020 set to return.

To expand on that point, defensive line is one spot on the field where head coach Kyle Whittingham rarely, if ever, has major reservations ahead of fall camp, especially in the recent past.

In 2019, a four-man defensive front featured four seniors in helping that Utes defense finish No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 3 nationally in rushing defense at 81.8 yards per game. Those seniors, consensus All-America first-team defensive end Bradlee Anae, left tackle John Penisini and right tackle Leki Fotu, all left for the NFL, but not much changed.

The lone holdover from that 2019 front, defensive end Maxs Tupai, combined with Mika Tafua at the other end spot and a combination of Hauati Pututau, Tennessee Pututau, and Viane Moala at the tackle spots as Utah finished the five-game, COVID-impacted 2020 season No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 11 nationally in rushing defense at 107.8 yards per game.

A two-time All-Pac-12 selection, Tafua is a lock to start at one defensive end spot, while Tupai is a safe bet at the other end spot. Tafua and Tupai have 66 career games and 37 starts between them. Tafua has started 13 consecutive games dating back to the 2019 season opposite Anae.

The two inside spots might be up for some debate as camp looms. Tennessee Pututau is the projected left tackle after starting the final two games of 2020 as a true freshman. His cousin, Hauati, started the first three games of last season and has 42 career games under his belt.

The second tackle spot is likely to be Moala, but Devin Kaufusi will have a say. Either way, there will be a lot of game experience at that tackle spot as Moala and Kaufusi have 72 games between them, although most of that came at Hawaii and BYU, respectively, before arriving in Salt Lake City.

Two young names to keep an eye on are Xavier Carlton and Van Fillinger. Both are freshmen again thanks to the NCAA’s pandemic-induced eligibility freeze, both are defensive ends, both are guys Whittingham talked up during spring at the position as potential two-deep options.

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