SALT LAKE CITY — The defensive line will be an interesting area for the Utah football team heading into fall camp next week.
Defensive end Trevor Reilly, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection a year ago, is gone and the Utes will have just one returning starter, senior defensive end Nate Orchard (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) back from last year’s squad. It also means there are three spots where fresh faces will have to step into the starting lineup.
However, the guys filling those roles have in-game experience, which should help in the transition with a new starting line.
Orchard returns after a solid junior season, where he finished with 50 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. He figures to not just anchor Utah’s defensive line, but become one of the better defensive ends in the conference. Not only does Orchard’s return mean good things on the field, but also his leadership off the field should be a giant boost in the locker room.
Junior defensive tackle Viliseni Fauonuku (5-10, 285), senior defensive tackle Sese Ianu (6-2, 290), and possibly sophomore defensive Hunter Dimick (6-3, 270) or junior end Jason Fanaika (6-3, 270) are projected to join Orchard on the starting line, according to the primary depth chart heading into camp.
All four possible candidates have playing experience with the Utes, or at least Division I football. Dimick finished last season with 30 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, while Fanaika, a Utah State transfer, sat out last season. He compiled 14 tackles with the Aggies in 2011.
The two potential starting middle linemen, Ianu and Fauonuku each saw playing time last season. Ianu played in 10 games and made eight tackles, while Fauonuku appeared in seven games and picked up 14 tackles and two sacks.
Of the projected top reserves, sophomore defensive end Pita Taumoepenu (6-1, 230) picked up six tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack in seven games last year, while sophomore defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (6-1, 310) and freshman defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi (6-3, 280) each redshirted last season.
Senior Greg Reese (6-5, 253) switched over from tight end to defensive end during spring camp. Freshman Clarence Smith (6-2, 240) switched over from the secondary to the line. Sophomore Sam Tevi (6-5, 295) switched to defensive tackle from the offensive line during spring camp.
Incoming defensive tackle freshman Lowell Lotulelei (6-1, 310), a three-star recruit from Bingham High, might have a familiar name. His brother, Star, excelled at Utah before getting drafted 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2013. Alani Havili-Katoa (6-3, 295) was ranked by Rival.com as the fifth-best player in all of Utah.
Snow College transfer Pasoni Tasini (6-2, 260) originally committed to Utah out of college, before going to junior college. Tasini picked up 44 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss while at Snow College last season.
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Opposing offenses will likely focus on Orchard on the left side of the Utes’ defensive end, which could allow the sophomore Dimick a chance at making an impact on the right side. He has great size for a lineman, at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, and has experience, playing in all 12 of Utah’s games last season.
In his limited time, he still put up 30 tackles, which is the most of the projected starters not named Orchard on the line.
There might be some growing pains with just one returning starter, but it shouldn’t last long. There’s a lot of size and talent up front and the players likely filling in three of the new starting spots all have experience on the collegiate field — a huge boost.
Orchard has the ability to blossom into a top all-Pac-12 defensive end.