By Dirk Facer
SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Kruger is standing tall for Utah's defense. The 6-foot-7 junior is having quite a year despite being hampered by a high ankle sprain for several weeks.
The defensive end, who has 22 tackles (12 solo) with 5.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, is credited with five sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception (returned 24 yards for a touchdown), a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
In last week's 49-6 win over Washington State, Kruger played a key role in the Utes' five first-half sacks and the constant duress that quarterback Jeff Tuel faced.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that Kruger is really starting to come into his own, especially since getting healthy again.
"He really got good pressure on the quarterback and was a force off the edge," Whittingham said while pointing out that defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake did a nice job of moving Kruger around, allowing him to rush from different angles and locations. "Joe did a nice job with that opportunity and ended up getting good pressure."
Kruger acknowledged that he's finally feeling like himself again.
"Those four weeks that I was hurting, it was just annoying and disappointing," he said while explaining that he wasn't able to make crucial cuts with the ankle injury. "So it's great to be able to be back and help out the team."
Kruger didn't play in Utah's loss at Arizona State and only saw action in a handful of plays in the USC game. At UCLA, he sported a big ankle brace that was taped around the injury.
"It was just really stiff and hard to move," Kruger said. "It was still hurting. It was just a pain."
The lack of mobility was a big deal. As a defensive end, Kruger relies on being able to pivot and shuffle down in order to make tackles.
"For me, it's everything," he explained.
Kruger was pleased with his performances early in the season. He felt he was in a groove, using his hands well and bursting off the line — things that are coming back again since his recovery.
The timing couldn't be better as Utah (4-5) faces a challenging season-ending stretch to become bowl eligible.
For Kruger, it's personal. He's determined to help older brother Dave, a starting defensive tackle, and the Utes' other seniors extend the program's run of consecutive bowl appearances to 10 years.
"I've just tried to motivate myself and the other younger players to work really hard these last couple of weeks and get to a bowl game for these guys," Kruger said. "They've been working hard for a really long time, so it's a big deal. We've got to get there."
NEXT FOR WILSON: Although Whittingham is pleased with the progress that quarterback Travis Wilson is making through four starts, he noted one thing that the true freshman is lacking — a signature road win.
"That's something that we need to shoot for and achieve," Whittingham said while calling this week's game at Washington a good opportunity to do so against a quality opponent.
Wilson agrees, adding that a road win would be the next big thing in his career at Utah.
"I think that will be huge for me and definitely huge for this team," he said.
Most importantly, he explained, a victory would put the Utes one step closer to a bowl game.
GETTING MORE DUNN: Whittingham didn't think Washington State would kick the ball to Reggie Dunn after the senior returned two for 100 yards a week earlier against California. The Cougars did, though, and Dunn once again went the distance for a touchdown. Question is, what will Washington do this week?
"They've got to certainly think twice about it," Whittingham said. "It's something they've got to take into consideration."
Dunn's role on offense as a receiver is also expanding. Whittingham noted that Dunn was on the field more last week than in any other game this season.
"We've got to get the ball in his hands a little bit more on offense," Whittingham said. "... I think we're trying to do that and get that structured."
Dunn has 12 catches for 74 yards on the season. He also has 12 carries for 54 yards rushing.