University of Utah’s Xavier Carlton, Van Fillinger vying to fill hole left by Maxs Tupai’s absence

Carlton and Fillinger both saw game reps during COVID-impacted, five-game 2020 season.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utes defensive end Xavier Carlton (44) goes through a drill during a recent practice

As far as fall camp position battles go this month at the University of Utah, the situation at defensive end is reasonably straightforward.

All-Pac-12 fifth-year junior Mika Tafua is entrenched at one defensive end spot, but the other projected starter, Maxs Tupai, is not with the team this fall, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham revealed on Wednesday.

Without Tupai, enter a pair of freshmen, Van Fillinger and Xavier Carlton, as prime candidates to fill Tupai’s spot. Whittingham has mentioned third-year redshirt freshman Miki Suguturaga a couple of times in these early days as a depth chart option, but that is more for the No. 4 spot right now.

That second defensive end is going to be either Fillinger or Carlton, both of whom find themselves with an opportunity to break through into a significant role this fall.

“Huge opportunity,” Whittingham said. “Couldn’t be a bigger opportunity for those guys, and they’re both excited about that opportunity. My guess is they’ll answer the bell and do just fine. When something happens to somebody, it’s somebody else’s opportunity and that’s how they have to look at it.”

Tupai’s absence is helping to fuel these opportunities for Carlton and Fillinger, whose lockers are next to each other inside the Eccles Football Center, but in hindsight, staying the course during an unorthodox, COVID-impacted 2020 season, was just as important.

As freshmen, their introduction to college was online classes, daily-antigen testing, canceled games, and ultimately, five games instead of the normally-prescribed 12. Carlton played in four of those five games, Fillinger played in all five, and Whittingham had nothing but positive things to say about both players whenever their names were mentioned.

“The biggest learning experience was to not underestimate anybody, especially in the Pac-12,” Carlton said. “Going through the spring, I took that to heart. I was working out every day, just trying to better my game and better my skills.”

Added Fillinger: “Last year, it felt like a “COVID year” as they say, it didn’t feel like a real year. Obviously, we tried to bring it every day, and did our best in the games, but still, no fans or anything. This feels way more like an actual season. Real camp, it feels like it’s almost time to play a real season now.”

Whoever winds up starting at that second defensive end spot opposite Tafua, there is a standard to uphold as Utah generally employs one of the Pac-12′s best units against the run.

In 2020, Utah’s 107.8 rushing yards allowed per game easily ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12, plus No. 11 nationally. The last time there was a full season, a stacked Utes defense yielded just 81.8 rushing yards per contest, good for No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 3 nationally.

Three-star RB Jaylon Glover commits to Utah

Utah picked up a verbal commitment Friday afternoon from three-star Lake Gibson (Florida) running back Jaylon Glover, who announced his choice on his Instagram Live, which drew an audience north of 1,000 people.

Glover chose the Utes over Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech and South Carolina. Glover, who grew up in Lakeland, roughly two-and-a-half hours from Gainesville, had long been considered a future Gator. The Utes received the last of Glover’s five official visits during the weekend of June 25.

Glover is the seventh commitment in Utah’s 2022 recruiting class, which is currently headlined by four-star Clovis (Calif.) High School quarterback Nate Johnson.

At this still-early juncture of the 2022 cycle, the Utes’ class is ranked 77th nationally.