It’s a really tight, close-knit group, which I really love. —Defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki
SALT LAKE CITY — Throughout the years, Utah football has been known for its strong defensive line and a proclivity for producing NFL defensive linemen.
In recent years, players such as Star Lotulelei, Paul Kruger, Paul Soliai, Jonathan Fanene and Sione Pouha have gone on to make their marks in the NFL, while before the turn of the century it was players such as Manny Fernandez, Steve Clark, Luther Elliss and Bronzell Miller who starred on Utah’s line and went on to play in the NFL.
This year, you’ll likely need a program to figure out who is playing on the Ute D-line. Aside from Nate Orchard, who was known as Nate Fakahafua his first two years at Utah, the rest of the Utes’ defensive line features guys you’ve probably never heard of unless you remember the Utah kids when they starred in high school.
Still there seems to be little concern up on the hill about this year’s crop of defensive linemen, and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake says the line may be as deep as it’s ever been.
“It’s coming along really well,’’ Sitake said. “We have 11 guys who give us a good mix and we’ll be fine. It’s just different names, but I think you’ll see a similar style of defensive line as we’ve had in the past.''
So who are these 11 guys?
It starts with Orchard, the former Highland High standout, who has started games since his freshman season. The other likely starter is Viliseni Fauonuku, who starred at Bingham High, at defensive tackle
Two other local products, Hunter Dimick, a 6-3, 268-pound sophomore from Syracuse High, and Jason Fanaika, a transfer from Utah State (Pleasant Grove High) are battling it out for the left end position.
At nose tackle, three players — Sese Ianu, a 290-pound senior, Clint Shepard, a walk-on junior and Lowell Lotulelei, the younger brother of you-know-who and just returned from an LDS mission after playing at Bingham — are in a fierce battle for the nose tackle spot. All three may end up playing, but who starts against Idaho State is still up in the air.
The others who are a part of the deep line are senior Greg Reese, a converted tight end, Wallace Gonzales, who temporarily moved from tight end last week, sophomore Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (East High) and redshirt freshman Filipo Mokofisi (Woods Cross).
“It’s a really tight, close-knit group, which I really love,’’ says defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki. “The older guys do a really good job of leadership, bringing along the younger guys.’’
Orchard is the leader of the group and has faith in his fellow linemen, saying, “We have tons of depth at every position and we’re stacked on the defensive line. We may be a little shorter, but at the same time we have guys who are willing to lay their lives on the line and go all out.’’
He’s also excited about his recent switch from left end to right end.
“It’s great because it’s the blind side,’’ he said. “I’ll have a better chance of getting the quarterback without him expecting me there, I’ll be getting him where he doesn’t see it coming.’’
The other end position may not be determined until just before next week’s opener. Either way, both players will see a lot of action.
“You’ll see Hunter and Jason a lot in games regardless of who starts,’’ says Sitake. “Hunter is a great pass rusher, he and Jason are very similar, body-wise and heart. They’re explosive and tough and can squeeze the pocket and get to the quarterback and do really well against the run.’’
Fauonuku is the shortest of the 11 defensive linemen at 5-foot-11, but as Sitake says, “that’s tall enough.’’ As for people not knowing much about him or his fellow D-linemen, Fauonuku isn’t concerned.
“We like it that way,’’ he said. “We’re pretty much humble guys and don’t really care for the whole media thing. But when it comes to put on pads that’s when we really shine.’’
Ianu, the only other tackle who played last year, certainly isn’t seeking attention. He escaped a request to speak to the media last week, and Tuiaki said, “Sesi has probably said two words to me in the past year.’’
Shepard may have the inside track at the nose tackle position, despite being a bit undersized at 276 pounds. He played for Copper Hills and also at Snow College and walked on at the U. in 2012 after serving an LDS mission.
“He is making an impact and will have a role on our defense,’’ said Tuiaki.
Sitake points out that Utah has often rotated several players on the defensive line to keep players fresh and says that will be the case this year.
“We’ve always rotated a lot of people and you’ll see a good rotation between four or five guys at the tackle spot,” he said. “Hopefully they all stay healthy and we have a tough decision to make at the end of camp.’’