SALT LAKE CITY — Not so long ago, Utah left tackle John Cullen spent about 13 hours adding a new tattoo to his arm. It's a detailed depiction of St. Michael.
"I just like what it stood for," Cullen said. "It's like good over evil. All of that, helping out the little guy and doing what's right."
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound lineman has taken on a leadership role as the Utes prepare for their first season in the Pac-12. Cullen and right tackle Tony Bergstrom are the only senior starters on offense and the coaches have asked them to be leaders.
It's a role the friends relish.
Bergstrom considers it a "perfect balance." The players, who are both considered all-conference candidates and NFL prospects, are quite different.
Bergstrom is a 25-year-old returned missionary from Salt Lake City who is married and the father of a child. Cullen, meanwhile, is a single 21-year-old from Mirada, Calif., with long hair and plenty of ink on his skin.
"They're two different personalities," acknowledged Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "John is a little more of a free spirit … But they are two good football players. They complement each other well."
And the Utes, he added, will lean on them heavily for leadership.
Cullen said they'll be up for the task.
"He's a little more serious and follows the rules. I'm a little more joking around and trying to mess with the coaches and stuff. But we get a good balance of leadership," Cullen said. "I always think you want to follow guys who work hard and do the right things. We try to do that everyday. We try to come out here with a good attitude."
Getting after the defense with a little smack talk, he continued, is just part of the fun.
"On the field we're completely different in personality," Bergstrom said. "He's a jokester. He's the joking trash talker."
Cullen, though, takes a lot of things seriously — like being a role model to his younger teammates. He has a lengthy scar on his forearm after having a metal plate and screws attached to his broken radius bone. It caused him to miss the Las Vegas Bowl and developed into a wrist thing he's been dealing with since surgery and rehab. It involves nerves and tendons associated with trying to come back too early in the weight room and on the field in spring ball.
Cullen, however, insists he'll be fine. He's been fitted with a custom brace and is just moving on.
"It's definitely one of those injuries that kind of turned into a nagging thing with little things here in the offseason dealing with it," Cullen said before noting he's at a place in his career where he is supposed to be a senior leader and he's determined to do so. "I don't get to have injuries. I don't get that luxury. If it's hurting, you get three rolls of tape on one arm and you just practice and that's the end of story. I don't have a problem with that. I like that. I want to show the younger guys what it takes."
And just what does it take?
Toughness and lots of it.
"If something hurts and there's a point where if you can't walk, OK, you're out," Cullen said. "But if you can walk you better tape that up and get out here and grind with us. Because that's the kind of program we are."
Cullen came to Utah as the top-rated junior college offensive lineman in the nation. He led Fullerton College to a pair of championships and two bowl victories.
Scholarship offers to the next level were plentiful.
"It never mattered to me — Pac-12, SEC, whatever," Cullen said. "I had offers from everywhere, but I was planning to go to a school that was a nice fit and a place I wanted to play at."
For Cullen, it was Utah.
"I love it here," he said. "Obviously when you first get out here it's a little different than Southern California, but Salt Lake definitely has a way of growing on you."
As for the Utes' move from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, Cullen was told it would happen well ahead of most folks.
"I knew we were doing this before I even signed. The coaches told me," he said. "I wasn't supposed to say that when I was recruited, but I guess now it's OK. I knew we were making the move."
In his first season with the Utes, Cullen started all 12 regular-season games and ranked among the team leaders statistically.
Quarterback Jordan Wynn appreciates having him around.
"It's nice. He's a good player. He came in and just handled his business. He's done nothing but good things since he got here," Wynn said. "Now it's his last year. So he's going to step up and continue to do good things."
Wynn noted that Cullen has lived up to his billing as the nation's best junior college lineman.
"Definitely. He's done a great job blocking my blindside," Wynn said. "I feel safe and it's great having him."
Bergstrom also appreciates having Cullen around.
"What do you need to know about the guy? I've got all the dirt. Look at that hair," he said while also joking about some of Cullen's tattoos, including one he describes as a "bad Vegas decision."
Bergstrom and Cullen are constantly competing against one another. Bergstrom, who is 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, said Cullen has a little bit of an athletic edge, but he's got a slight advantage in strength.
"It's fun," Bergstrom said. "Any time I can get a leg up on him he'll never hear the end of it and it's the same vice-versa."
Cullen beat him in a box squat one day and Bergstrom, who called it "a fluke," still hears about it.
The two have formed a bond.
"It's great. That's the nice thing about college football. You come together with so many different guys and John is as different as it gets," Bergstrom said. "That's the biggest fun part about it. Look at him. If I ever saw a guy with that kind of hair I would probably make fun of him."28 comments on this story
Although Cullen is having a good time playing college ball, he's serious about the season ahead. It's his primary focus right now, not a future in the NFL.
"I'll worry about that when it comes. That's a long ways away," Cullen said. "We've got to worry about getting better out here."
And as far as the Utes are concerned, he's confident they'll get things done in the trenches this season.
"The O-line is going to be fine," Cullen said. "I promise the fans that."
Utes on the air
Montana State at Utah
Thursday, Sept. 1