Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — One of the main tenets of Utah football under coach Kyle Whittingham has always been toughness.
Whether the Utes have the most talented guys on the field or not, one thing is certain — they'll always be tough, hard-nosed players.
That's especially true on the offensive and defensive lines, where the Utes usually win the battles year-in and year-out. This year, the Utes have a wealth of talent in the trenches, although injuries have slowed the offensive line a bit during fall camp.
The defensive line just may be the strongest and deepest part of the whole team, despite losing three starters from last year in Christian Cox, Sealver Siliga and Junior Tui'one.
Several of this year's Utes saw plenty of action last year, including Dave Kruger, who started at nose tackle much of the season; Star Lotulelei, who started three games late in the season; and senior Derrick Shelby, a part-time starter at end the past three seasons.
Also back is 6-foot-7, 270-pound end Joe Kruger, who is listed as a starting end; 6-3, 305-pound tackle James Aiono; Nai Fotu, who has been moved from linebacker; and senior Tevita Finau, who also saw a lot of action last year. That doesn't leave much room for true freshman Nate Fakahafua, but Whittingham insists he is good enough to see action this year at defensive end.
That's seven players and Whittingham has said that 6-5, 238-pound Trevor Reilly, who played defensive end last year and has been moved to linebacker, could see some time back on the D-line.
Others who have done well in fall camp include Michigan State transfer David Rolf, LT Tuipulotu and Lei Talamaivao, a former starter, who has been hampered by injuries.
Whittingham calls Lotulelei "one of the top defensive tackles in the Pac-12" and a "block-eater." With him in the middle of the D-line, opponents are going to expend a lot of energy trying to avoid him.
"The defensive line is the strength of the team," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "We have a lot more depth than we've had in the past."
The offensive line looks solid, too — as long as everyone is healthy. The O-line has been hampered by injuries during fall camp, forcing the Utes to move a few players from the deeper defensive line to offense.
Offensive line coach Tim Davis is back at Utah for the third time after working with offensive coordinator Norm Chow at USC. While concerned about the lack of depth on the line, Davis likes what he has seen so far.
"It's a great group to work with," he said. "They've accepted the new offense and put their arms around it."
Tevita Stevens has moved from right guard to center, taking over for two-year starter Zane Taylor. Both tackles — seniors Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen — are back, while junior Sam Brenner has moved into the right guard spot and sophomore Vyncent Jones will be the left guard.
Because of a lack of depth on the O-line, the Utes have moved Latu Heimuli from the defensive line and he'll be a backup guard along with Jeremiah Tofaeono. Another sophomore, Kapua Sai, is backing up Bergstrom on the right side, while Miles Mason, a JC transfer who only joined the team last week, is already listed as the backup at right tackle. Joape Pela will back up Stevens in the middle.
Sophomore Percy Taumoelau and true freshman Issac Asiata could also be in the mix on the O-line, but both have been hampered by injuries in fall camp.
Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle, only started three games last year, but he is being touted to take after his name and be the star of the Ute defense this year. The former Bingham High and Snow College player, has slimmed down from 350 to 320 and has "strength, quickness and agility," according to coach Kyle Whittingham, who expects him to be one of the best tackles in the Pac-12 this year.
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