Koa Misi's uncertain status is covered by a certainty — other talented defensive ends will hold down the fort for the University of Utah.
Junior Nai Fotu and sophomore Derrick Shelby are the projected starters as the Utes await Misi's return from a back injury. Junior Tui'one and Christian Cox are the primary reserves.
"Everybody has to do their job," Shelby said of playing without Misi. "Somebody else has to step up. If we all do our part, then everybody can share that load."
Misi, who was carted off the field Wednesday night after tweaking his back, is out indefinitely. The 6-foot-3, 263-pound senior is considered one of the Mountain West's premier defenders and is on the league's preseason all-conference team.
Defensive line coach John Pease called it a "goofy injury." The line, he explained, was doing quick sets and Misi didn't even get hit. The injury came on a quick move where Misi may have cranked up too much torque — because of his strength and explosiveness — on a turn.
Although an official diagnosis has yet to be released, Pease acknowledged hearing some good news.
"I guess it's much less than they thought," he said. "Which is a blessing."
No one in the program will project a return date for Misi, but Pease jokingly told the NFL prospect: "No more days off for you."
Fotu, who is currently taking most of the reps at right end, also painted a positive picture on Misi's return.
"He's doing pretty good right now," he said. "I don't know, I'm not sure, but he'll be back quick though."
In the meantime, the Utes continue preparations for their Sept. 3 season-opener against Utah State.
"They've recruited so well here," Pease said. "You pick up and go."
Utah's depth at defensive end will help them weather the storm without Misi.
"The cupboard is not bare," Whittingham said. "We hope Koa gets well soon, but in the interim these guys will hold down the fort."
Easily said with Fotu on one end.
The junior, who started at stud linebacker last season and made 35 tackles, is back at his natural position.
"He's a very explosive player," Whittingham said. "His style of play is all based on speed and quickness."
Rushing the passer, he added, is where Fotu is most comfortable.
"Nai is a natural phenomenon. He's kind of like Brer Rabbit. He jumps in the briar patch and just whatever happens, happens. He just goes full speed," Pease said. "He's a Tasmanian Devil out there. He may get blocked, but I tell you what he's coming after you. He'll get up off the ground."
And he's making a good transition from linebacker to defensive end. Fotu credits Misi for easing the switch. They've worked together in practice, and the latter has shared his knowledge on the position.
"I'm glad that I've got to work with him," Fotu said. "I can't wait till he comes back."
Misi's shoes, obviously, are big ones to fill.12 comments on this story
"It's pretty tough because, as you know, Koa is a good player. He's done a lot for the team," Fotu noted. "I just hope I can help out."
All indications are he will. Fotu was recruited as a defensive end and was slated to be in a three-man rotation with Misi and Shelby this season. Re-learning the position, he added, has been pretty easy.
"I've played that spot before so getting back to it was pretty normal for me," Fotu said. "So it feels pretty good. It's worked out pretty well."