Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — True freshman Nate Fakahafua is already making a name for himself at the University of Utah.
"He's doing some very good things. He's demonstrated a lot of athleticism and ability throughout the first six days of practice," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said while noting the only missing component is putting more weight on the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defensive end. "He's got all the qualities you look for in a defensive end. He's quick off the ball, he's got great use of hands and he's tenacious."
Fakahafua is also a winner. During his senior year at Highland High, he helped lead the Rams to 4A state titles in both football and basketball. On top of that, Fakahafua maintained a 4.0 grade-point average along the way.
"He's a great kid," Whittingham said. "He's a big get for us. We're excited to have him in the program."
The feeling is mutual.
"I'm just blessed and grateful for the opportunity to be out here playing with these guys," said Fakahafua, who added that he's having fun in the collegiate environment even though the players are bigger and faster than those in the high school ranks.
Size, though, is expected to be a problem for Fakahafua. He's already added 25 pounds to his athletic frame since basketball season and eventually hopes to get up to 255-260 pounds.
Whittingham said Fakahafua is a lot like sophomore standout Brian Blechen, who was moved from safety to linebacker this season.
"He's going to get bigger and bigger," Whittingham explained. "Although he's a very gifted athlete who could play wide receiver or maybe tight end ... we believe he's going to be best suited for defensive end."
When Fakahafua signed with the Utes, he told Whittingham to put him wherever it helped the team.
"That was defensive line," Fakahafua said. "I'm liking it there so far. The only problem right now is just my weight. I'm a lot smaller than those offensive linemen, but in time my weight will come and I'll be ready."
Things are coming along in that regard, albeit not as quickly as Fakahafua would like.
"But I'll get there," he said.
In the meantime, Fakahafua is making progress on the line. He intercepted a pass during live drills earlier in the week and drew plenty of praise.
"It was nice," said Fakahafua. "All the guys got excited about it."
Despite his desire to get heavier, Fakahafua isn't interested in being a redshirt.
"Right now I'm on a couple of special teams and things are looking pretty good for me," he said. "Right now, I want to play really bad."
Utah's inaugural season in the Pac-12 has special meaning. Fakahafua was born in Los Angeles and lived near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. His childhood dream was to play for UCLA — something family members in California also wanted to see happen.
Facing the Bruins this fall, he admits, will be a little bit weird but exciting.
Fakahafua has lived in Utah for six years now and decided to stay here, reaching that decision as a sophomore at Highland.
"I just fell in love with the city, the environment and the people around here," he said. "So I just decided I wanted to stay home."
Things turned out well, Fakahafua acknowledged, with the Utes ultimately joining the Pac-12 and playing a game in greater Los Angeles every year.
Fakahafua, though, has his sights set on ever more — a trip to the Rose Bowl and "hopefully a national championship."
In the meantime, he's happy to be a Ute.
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