Before the start of the season, the biggest question mark on the Utah football team was the defensive tackle position. It turned into an exclamation point when, in the first two games, the Utes lost starters to injury at the tackle position on consecutive weekends.
The Utes just plugged in a couple of undersized, converted defensive ends to the tackle positions and they are doing just fine, thank you. After four games, Utah ranks third in the country in yards per game, allowing an average of just 199 yards per outing, due in large part to its small defensive line.
How small is it?
Well, if you look at all 120 Football Bowl Division schools, only five schools have smaller defensive lines than the Utes (see chart). And the Utes have by far the smallest pair of defensive tackles in senior Greg Newman (260 pounds) and redshirt freshman Derrick Shelby (245 pounds).
Ute defensive coordinator Gary Andersen just smiles when asked about his line, which he oversees as the defensive line coach.
"It's working out well," he said. "We have kids that play a lot bigger than they are with the way their leverage is and their pad level. They're very good athletes, and we're doing everything we can to move them and to use their athleticism to their advantage and not to their size disadvantage."
The four starters in the Utes' base defense are led by sophomore right end Paul Kruger, who already tied a school record with four sacks in a game against Utah State and currently leads the nation in tackles for loss with 11.5. He's joined by Shelby at the nose tackle, Newman at tackle and junior Koa Misi at the left end.
"We have a lot of athleticism and agility," said Kruger. "When you're smaller and a little bit faster, it creates a lot of opportunity to slant and do a lot of different things. Coach Andersen is one of the best coaches in the country in my opinion. He's done a fantastic job in getting us ready."
Andersen could have cried when he lost starter Kenape Eliapo, a prototypical 6-foot, 303-pound nose tackle, in the first game against Michigan. Then the next week, Eliapo's replacement, 6-2, 285-pound Lei Talamaivao, went down with an injury.
The Utes considered 292-pound Aaron Tonga, who was coming off a preseason injury, before settling on Shelby, who is the skinniest starting nose tackle in the country at 6-3, 245 pounds.
Shelby was a tight end until his senior year of high school. He switched to defensive end during his redshirt year but has had to make another adjustment this year.
"I've been practicing really hard, and now I'm trying to take advantage of it," said Shelby, a native of Houston. "It wasn't that much of an adjustment. They can root me out of there. But if you get your hands on them first, you can usually win 90 percent of the time."
"He comes from a good high school program and is a very mature kid, a student of football," said Andersen. "He's very competitive, has great athleticism and great use of his hands."
Newman, who has taken Shelby under his wing, said, "He's a young guy, but he's real teachable and knows the plays like the back of his hand. I can't say enough about that kid, he's worked his butt off."
This is Newman's first year as a starter, but he's playing like a veteran with 17 total tackles, four tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. He moved from defensive end last year and played a bit, but now is in on almost every down.
"He's playing at an extremely high level right now," said Andersen. "The difference for him is that he's a lot stronger and his technique is money. The thing he brings most to the table is his sheer toughness and his ability to prepare and study offensive linemen. I think he makes every one of our defensive linemen better because of the way he studies film and prepares."
Although he is small for a tackle at 260 pounds, Newman has embraced his new position.
"It's been a really great thing for me," he said. "I'm grateful the coaches gave me a shot."
So what is the key to playing against the huge 300-pound offensive linemen?
"Coach stresses being quick off the ball and explosive," Newman said. "If a big guy is into you, he can maul you, so you have to stay one step ahead of him or he'll dump you. The one thing we have is our quickness, so if we can use that to our advantage, it makes our job easier."
Misi, who leads the Utes with 25 tackles, actually began his career at tackle and started 11 games there last year before being moved this year to end, where the coaches like to take advantage of his speed and quickness.
His versatility allows him to go back inside as he did a week ago when he played most of the game against Air Force at tackle with Newman, while linebacker Nai Fotu moved up to play end.
"They have to be versatile because we don't have that many guys," said Andersen, who isn't afraid to move people around and try innovative schemes.
So what's going to happen with the Utes' defense when the Utes' big linemen recover from their injuries?"The way we're playing, we're not going to change much, I'll tell you that," said Andersen.