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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah's Jeremiah Poutasi works against teammate Tevita Malafu during practice Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at Rice Eccles Stadium.
We have size and strength with a bunch of 300-pounders that are very athletic. We feel that’s going to be a strong suit for us this year. If we’re going to be any good, that’s needs to be the case. —Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago at this time, the biggest question mark for the Utah football team was the offensive line.

From the first day of fall camp, coach Kyle Whittingham expressed concern about the O-line because of key injuries and a lack of depth. The issue was never solved as players on the line were juggled all season and the Ute offense sputtered.

What a difference a year makes.

Talk to Whittingham now, and he sings the praises of his offensive line.

“We’ve got more depth there than we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “We’ve got 17 healthy bodies right now, maybe 18, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not just the numbers. We have size and strength with a bunch of 300-pounders that are very athletic. We feel that’s going to be a strong suit for us this year. If we’re going to be any good, that’s needs to be the case.”

It turns out that last year’s struggles up front are one reason the O-line looks to be so good this year. Because of injuries and inadequate play, certain players took advantage of the opportunity to get important playing time, and it’s paying off this season.

No one took advantage more than Jeremiah (C.J.) Poutasi, the 6-foot-5, 345-pound sophomore from Las Vegas. In a Deseret News story about the offensive line last August, he was mentioned as someone “who could work his way onto the depth chart as camp progresses.” But by the fourth game, he had earned a starting spot, and this year he’s being touted as an All-American prospect by the Utah PR folks.

“He’s a damn good player and a super humble kid who comes to work and makes himself better every day,” says offensive line coach Dan Finn. “I watched him play in high school when I was at Idaho and San Diego State, and I thought the guy was unbelievable.”

Poutasi will man the all-important left tackle spot after playing on the right side last year and will be joined by Jeremiah Tofaeono, a 6-2, 320-pound senior at right guard. The center is Vyncent Jones, a 6-3, 305-pound senior who played at guard most of last season, while Junior Salt, a highly touted 325-pound JC transfer who sat out with an injury last year, is No. 1 at right guard and Siaosi Aiono, a 305-pound sophomore, is slated for the right tackle spot.

You might remember Marc Pouvave, the transfer from Southwestern College who was penciled in as a starter last year before tearing his Achilles before the season. Well, right now, he can’t crack the starting lineup and is listed as a co-backup at left tackle with another highly touted transfer from last year, 385-pound Carlos Lozano.

Utah’s new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson is well-known for his outstanding offenses over the years, and he’s the first to tell you the importance of having a strong “front” as he calls it. And he is very pleased with what he’s seen of the Utes’ offensive line.

“I would say our strength would be our offensive front at this point,” he says. “If we can stay healthy — that’s always an issue — we are much better than a year ago, no question about it.”

Erickson also emphasized the importance of running the ball, which requires a strong offensive line.

“Regardless of whether you’re spreading it out or going no huddle or you huddle up for two hours or whatever, you still have to be able to run the football,” he said. “Great teams do it, even in the spread. Oregon, for example, runs the football. So we’ve got to be able to run the football to create other things for us in the offense.”

Finn said having so much experience back on the offensive line is paying off already.

“It was great, I walk into my meeting and start installing and they’re telling me how to run the play,” he said with a laugh. “So that’s a good thing.”

Unlike other positions on the team, where players are rotated in and out, the offensive linemen play most of the game without relief, which makes depth less of an issue. However, the Utes have plenty of players who can be plugged in if needed because of injuries or poor play.

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The current depth chart lists senior Percy Taumoelau as the backup at left guard, redshirt freshman Hiva Lutui at center, sophomore Derek Tuimauga, a recently returned missionary, at right guard, and JC transfer Andrew Albers at right tackle.

“We’ve got some big boys out there,” said Jones, who has moved to center to replace Tevita Stevens. “We’ve got so many guys now, it’s amazing. We’ve never had so many guys in camp. I’m pretty excited about this year and the years to come when I get to watch them shine for us.”