Last fall, Utah’s Dave and Joe Kruger joined All-American Star Lotulelei in anchoring arguably the best defensive line in the Pac-12. That success has parlayed into NFL careers. While Lotulelei was drafted in the league’s first round in April, Joe Kruger was selected in the seventh round after leaving Salt Lake City one year early.
In surviving the Cleveland Browns’ minicamp as a free agent, Dave Kruger joins star brother Paul — also an alum of the Utah defensive line — in the Rock ’n’ Roll capital of the world.
Now, the Utes hope they can at least reflect the on-field inspiration offered by the Krugers of recent past. Or maybe even better yet, a Star.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake are confident they at least have some of the other type. They have lost 75 percent of the unit to the bright lights of the NFL. It led a defense that ranked second in the Pac-12 against the rush last year.
But Whittingham has again referenced his familiar “reload, not rebuild” mantra with his new crew. And some players are just as confident (or more): defensive ends Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard are saying that the 2013 unit can be better than last year's.
At this point, its members in the trenches certainly shine differently (though there's stories of family with this year's version, too).
Soar into the outer-orbital analysis.
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
Sitake has said he’s not concerned with defending the outside run. The main reason would be Reilly.
Reilly (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) was the Utes’ leading tackler last fall with 69 stops. The senior earned honorable mention All Pac-12 honors while splitting time between linebacker (eight starts) and defensive end (four starts). When Kruger deferred from his final season, Whittingham quickly plugged in Reilly, now saying that Reilly is “an ideal end” for his team because of Reilly’s quickness, length and pass rushing abilities.
Whittingham says “the traditional big defensive end is becoming a thing of the past,” saying the position has evolved into a hybrid now — part defensive lineman, part linebacker. Because neither Orchard nor Jason Whittingham are his size, Reilly must do even more for the Utes to be competitive this season, aside from leadership. ESPN’s Kevin Gemmell says Reilly is Utah’s “most important player,” saying that as last year’s leading tackler, he'll be asked to take on a greater role as a pass-rusher while also maintaining his stop-the-run approach.
When he is at linebacker, look for Orchard or Whittingham to be on the right end — which means lots of speed crashing on the backfield. That should also open things up for Brian Blechen, who is making the move from the secondary to linebacker exclusively.
Gemmell is wrong when he writes that “it's very possible that Utah's offense and defense swap places in 2013,” when the former ranked 75th and the latter 49th in scoring. He’s correct in assessing that the impact of new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson and the rise of Travis Wilson at quarterback could dramatically improve that side of the ball. But he’s irrational to say that “as the offense gets better, it's possible that the defense takes a hit during the rebuilding process. It's Reilly's job to make sure that doesn't happen. No pressure.”
Along with Blechen, Reilly clearly must lead the defense, but it shouldn’t plummet just because the offense is succeeding. If anything, that will improve the defensive backs when they are left to face signal-callers like Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
With six starters having departed from the 2012 defense — five to the NFL — Reilly’s veteran know-how is critical. After redshirting in 2009, Reilly has appeared in 36 games with 20 starts. Offenses should want to stay away from him: he's forced seven career fumbles — tying for third in school history. He’s also tallied 21 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks in his career. Just last season, Reilly added 6.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading 4.5 sacks.
(with shining moments from Sese Ianu)
It’s difficult to claim that one player is going to replace Lotulelei, a tackle, because he regularly drew double teams in the middle last season. Media described Lotulelei’s performance against USC as “heroic.” He was a dominant factor even when he wasn’t racking up dominant statistics.
But Palepoi might do it — especially with help. Talk in August has swirled about how good the Salt Lake City native is. In the spring, Whittingham was adamant about how good Palepoi and junior Sese Ianu are, already ranking them among the best tackles in the Pac-12, despite neither having started an NCAA game. (Keep in mind that Whittingham has already placed two of his quarterbacks in the “upper echelon” of the conference, with a third listed as a co-second stringer.)
Under Dave Kruger, Palepoi (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) played in every game and started one last season as a junior college transfer. Ianu (6-foot-2, 305 pounds) is a junior who comes to Salt Lake City from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. Between them, don’t get confused this season: Whittingham has described them as “clones.”
One just might have more pressure due to expectations fostered within his family. Palepoi’s older brother Anton played six years in the NFL after starring at UNLV. But Anton has said that his little brother has the skill to play at the next level. As a senior, Palepoi just has one year to prove it.
Not that he needed to bide his time behind a first-round draft pick. Line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki nearly recruited him to play for Gary Andersen-led Utah State.
Still, Whittingham says that along with the recruiting class that will be seen in August, the tackles — led by Palepoi — could be better than last year's three-pro unit.
"Our tackles have probably been the most improved group of spring," Whittingham declared in April. "We've been fortunate to have a long run of talent on the defensive front, and this year appears to be no different,” he said.
So talented, in fact, that rumors had Whittingham and Sitake adjusting to a 3-4 scheme. Perhaps it’s ultimately because Whittingham doesn’t want to adapt to the change: he has essentially run the same defense (4-3) since becoming Utah’s defensive coordinator in 1995.
Scheme may not matter so much if Orchard is right about Palepoi. “He’s just as good as Star,” he says. “Star and I are close, but Tenny brings the pressure, and I love him.”
Aside from saying he wants to force backs away from him like Lotuleli did, Palepoi may be rivaling Orchard for most bold assessments. He says the offensive line is making the defensive line so good because the latter is the best in the Pac-12. He also admitted his team came into camp not in football shape and was “sluggish to begin.”
As for the Utah State game? “I have a bad taste in my mouth from last year, so I just want to be able to wipe it out, and Aug. 29 I’ll be able to do that."
Under the surname Fakahafua, Orchard (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) started at left end as a sophomore, earning honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors and racking up 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Orchard was Utah’s fourth-leading tackler last season with 48, including 9.5 tackles for loss with three fumble recoveries, three sacks and two forced fumbles. In Utah’s loss to USC, he provided the Utes’ highlight by stripping the ball from quarterback Matt Barkley and returning it eight yards for a touchdown.
Rising to the next level, however, is less likely for Orchard compared with his peers. The 20-year-old got married before his team started fall camp, changing his surname to his guardians’. In not playing alongside Lotulelei and the Krugers, he won’t have as many opportunities — and many among the local media already thought he underachieved given who was putting their hand down next to him.
Consequently, Orchard will probably share more time with converted linebacker Jason Whittingham — much more than with Reilly, anyway.
Despite gaining 10 pounds in the offseason, a plateau junior season seems quite possible for Orchard.
Jason Whittingham, Thretton Palamo, L.T. Tuipolotu, Seni Fauonuku and Steve Tuikolovatu
Reilly says eight but perhaps 12 Utes on defense can play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level really well right now. If it’s the latter, at least three of the five “dwarf stars” are at that point.
Whittingham is nearly in giant category since the nephew of the coach is nipping Orchard on the outside. Sitake has thrown him with Reilly and Orchard in saying he did “good things” during the acclimatization period.
The 6-foot-2, 234-pound sophomore is quick and strong but may lack the size to become an every-down player. Coaches are saying otherwise this month.
In nine games last year since returning from an LDS Church mission, he made 35 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and two forced fumbles. He was an All-State player in 2008 at Timpview (Utah) High School and made the honor roll all four years, when Timpview won three state championships.
Sitake has also highly praised Palamo. Since he’s a senior, that’s fortunate for the Sacramento, Calif., product. Then again, he didn’t play competitive sports until he was 17 years old, when he became the youngest player to participate in the Rugby World Cup only to captain the USA Rugby Sevens in the 2009 World Games. So he may be blossoming athletically only now, and certainly for football.
Palamo played in nine games last season — mostly on special teams — and recorded five tackles.
A senior, Tuipolotu (6-foot-1, 305) has been described on Scout.com as a “steady, hard-working veteran who is eager to finally get a chance in a starting role now that he’s finally healthy.” He may start at nose tackle and was limited to three games last year. The previous season, he played in 10 games. He was a first-team all-district player for two years at Trinity High (Texas). Reilly recently mentioned him with Palepoi and Orchard as perhaps the most valuable player on the defense.
Tuikolovatu (6-foot-1, 320), a walk-on redshirt freshman, returned from an LDS mission last fall and has since gained 15 pounds. “Stevie T,” as his teammates call him, is mentioned here because Whittingham said he “was arguably the most pleasant surprise of spring camp.”
Sophomore Fauonuku may be obscure on the roster but not in the news. He’s already been mentioned in an investigative Sports Illustrated article about criminal records in college football due to a first degree felony charge that’s since been cleared. And that was part of an in-depth Deseret News feature by Amy Donaldson about his experience in blaming himself for his baby nephew’s death in a burning house, his move from Utah to Texas to gain a father figure, his conversion to Mormonism and recruitments by BYU and Utah despite his 5-foot-11 height.
Now Fauonuku will be a two-deep player at tackle as a sophomore. He played in all 12 games last season and played for championship teams in both Texas (Euless Trinity High School, 2007) and Utah (Bingham High School, 2009-10).