We all know that homely-looking girl from school who returns the following fall quite changed and more beautiful as ever. Consider Ashley, Hannah or Priscilla a reflection of this year’s Utah offensive line. Accounts from coach Kyle Whittingham are that the unit’s immense talent is ready to flourish in the Utes’ third season in the Pac-12.
Even after losing three senior starters, Whittingham calls the offensive line "the deepest group we've had in years." The Utes go two deep in 300-pounders whose quickness and agility seems to confute their size.
Utah had 18 healthy offensive linemen in spring camp, and seven or eight were already prepared to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, offensive line coach Dan Finn says. He wants that number to be at 10 for fall camp and thinks he’ll get it.
Left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, left guard Jeremiah Tofaeono, center Vyncent Jones, right guard Junior Salt and right tackle Siaosi Aiono are the current starting five, but Isaac Asiata and Andrew Albers are proving to be challengers for Toefaeono and Aiono at right tackle and left guard, respectively.
The Utes are so young and deep in this unit that Finn recruited just one offensive lineman for 2013 — Texas prep star Salesi Uhatafe (Trinity High). Kyle Christiansen, the standout from Mountain Crest High in Logan, committed to Utah in early July. Utah State and Hawaii had offered scholarships to Christiansen and BYU and Boise State had shown interest.
The following players are listed in estimation in order of how they stack with their Pac-12 counterparts on the offensive line generally. KSL.com’s Mike Grant and Robert Jackson even wrote recently that the Utes “can’t afford to lose” Poutasi and Jones. They cited the line’s “mess” throughout fall camp and injuries and lack of performances as the cause behind the unit continuing to get shifted throughout September.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. firstname.lastname@example.org | @wilklogan
The Utes should consider themselves fortunate to have this sophomore — he’s already an All-Pac-12 player. He earned an honorable mention last year as a true freshman. Now, he’s an All-America candidate that Whittingham has billed as Utah’s “next great lineman.”
The sophomore is 6-foot-5, 345 pounds but "light on his feet," Whittingham said. The Salt Lake media have assessed that the Las Vegas product may be Utah’s next great lineman. Coming out of Deseret Pines High School, Poutasi was a first-team all-state performer, a four-star recruit and 10th-rated offensive guard by Rivals.com. He was also named the top offensive lineman in the 2012 Offense-Defense All-America Game in Dallas.
This season may mark a track for Poutasi similar to the one his cousin Paul Fanaika found en route to the Seattle Seahawks franchise. That’s not a bad trajectory, especially considering he doesn’t even turn 19 until Aug. 7.
According to the Deseret News’ Dirk Facer, the senior will fill the center position held by Tevita Stevens the past two seasons. He played sparingly last season — but when he did, he was often found relieving projected starting left guard Jeremiah Toefaeono at that position.
Whittingham has said that the 6-foot-3, 305-pound senior from Jordan High School (Utah) is a versatile player who can play all five spots on the offensive line. He said Jones is best suited for the interior, however.
Projected starting quarterback Travis Wilson has noted that relations with Jones have gone well, having mainly worked out with each other in the offseason. Wilson has gone so far as to say that Jones is the “smartest guy” among the offensive group.
Jones has acknowledged that in other seasons of his career, communication was weaker and physicality softer than it should have been. Now, the group enters a second cohesive year together, he said, with six returning starters on offense. (During last season’s losing campaign, however, Utah had nine returning starters.)
“In years past, it seemed the center would be making calls and the players would be focused on other plays,” he said during spring camp. “Now, everybody seems to have a good grasp on the plays.”
Salt (6-foot-2, 325) is not only transitioning from defensive tackle, where he was expected to play after transferring from Mt. San Antonio. He also missed the 2012 campaign not only because he had a redshirt year but because of a broken foot. Hopefully that won’t dampen his 4.98-second 40 speed.
Salt was a 2011 first-team All-America Community College Football team offensive guard at Mt. San Antonio and Rivals’ 10-rated junior college prospect in 2012 as a defensive tackle. He is also a returned Latter-day Saint missionary. But perhaps his greatest notoriety is that he had an acting role in the 2008 rugby-themed film “Forever Strong.” He played rugby for Highland High, where he graduated in 2005.
Whittingham has said he is very excited to see Salt in game action.
Toefaeono (6-foot-2, 32) actually lost this position to Jones due to injury sustained in a one-touchdown loss at UCLA. He doesn’t need to deal with his successor now that Jones has taken the mantle at center, but that doesn’t mean his battles are over. The senior must stave off the rising Asiata.
Nonetheless, Toefaeono reportedly has all-conference potential. He played and started in the first six games of the season before getting knocked out at the Rose Bowl. In 2011, he played in all 13 games on special teams and appeared on the line in wins over BYU and UCLA and that embarrassing home loss to Colorado.
Asiata (6-foot-4, 315) is also battling with Andrew Albers for Aiono’s position, a race that is more uncertain. Asiata participated in spring ball after returning from an LDS mission. That was preceded by a 2011 redshirt season.
At Spanish Fork High, Asiata was a captain and first-team all-state selection as a junior and senior.
Aiono (6-foot-2, 305) has the edge, asserted after the spring, because of his proven athleticism through the experience (26 plays on the line) he did gain last year as a redshirt freshman. Injuries caused the West Covina, Calif., native to be thrust into six games — including the final five of the season, when the Utes went 3-2. Three were on the offensive line, a loss to Arizona and wins over Cal and Washington State.
Aiono was a first-team all-Sierra League and second-team all-state player at South Hills High (Calif.).
Albers pushed Aiono in the spring. Being 6-foot-7 helps, as it means he could gain more weight than his current 310 pounds. Whittingham said that he demonstrated solid conditioning entering and throughout spring ball after transferring from Orange Coast College (Calif.), where he was a second-team all-conference offensive tackle for Orange Coast College in 2012. As a senior at Costa Mesa High (Calif.), he was the 2010 Orange Coast League Lineman of the Year. He has three years to play two.
Given Finn’s model to have a solid two-deep at each line position (10 players), three players must emerge in fall camp between Carlos Lozano, Percy Taumoelau, Hiva Lutui and Derek Tuimauga.
Lozano probably has the best shot, though the 6-foot-6, 380-pound project needs to drop weight — that hasn’t been an easy task. The East L.A. College transfer, who redshirted in 2012, was a unanimous first-team All-Mountain Conference selection in 2011. He helped the Huskies to their best season in 37 years in 2011, when they won the Mountain Conference and the American Bowl.
Then again, perhaps Taumoelau (6-foot-4, 310) is better off than Lozano. The senior sat out his first season as a redshirt in 2010 but has contributed every year since.
Lutui (6-foot-2, 300) redshirted in 2012 but is a highly regarded athlete. The former Trinity High (Euless, Texas) star is Jones’ reserve. He was a 2011 U.S. Air Force All-American and first-team all-state Class 5A player in 2010 and 2011.
Tuimauga (6-foot-4, 325) is also a returned LDS missionary but may give Salt a run this fall. He was born in 1990 but is just a freshman. His high school credentials may be the best of any lineman: out of Bingham High School, he was a 2007 All-American and a two-time all-state and three-time all-conference, the fourth best player in the state that year according to Scout.com. The Miners won three straight region titles with Tuimauga.