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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Defensive end Bradlee Anae runs a drill during University of Utah spring practice at the Eccles Football Complex in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 10, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae may have made history last season. As a sophomore, he topped the team’s big play board.

Defensive line coach Lewis Powell can’t recall if any player that young has ever done so, especially while playing with such a veteran group. Anae started alongside seniors Kylie Fitts, Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi.

“For him to win it was huge,” Powell said. “He’s coming along. He’s doing a good job.”

Anae came of age quickly. Besides leading the Utes with seven sacks, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound former Hawaii prep star ranked among the Pac-12 leaders in forced fumbles (tied for second with three) and fumble recoveries (fourth with two).

In addition, Anae shared team-high honors with 10 tackles for loss. His 39 stops overall were the most of anyone on the defensive line.

Powell said that Anae has come a long way after seeing some success early as a true freshman.

“We’re pretty excited to see what happens this year,” Powell said. “Hopefully he continues to stride the right way, continues to make plays and lead the team.”

The latter, for Anae, includes increased leadership as the lone regular starter returning on the defensive line. It’s a role he readily accepts.

“It only makes sense. I have the most experience playing,” Anae said. “So it did thrust me into a leadership position. But I’m willing to take that on.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t surprised. He said that Anae and junior tackle Leki Fotu are the leaders on the line.

“They’re both very good players and we’re looking for those guys to have very productive years for us,” Whittingham said.

The defensive line just seems to reload every year for the Utes. Whittingham said that it’s just the nature of the game.

“Seniors graduate and guys come up through the system,” he said. “(They) step into their shoes and you just keep on going.”

As for the next generation, Anae thinks they’re off to a good start this spring. He sees a “bunch of young guys ready to go” and a group that is “just trying to follow in the footsteps” of those that came before them.

Senior linebacker Chase Hansen considers the defensive line a big part of the program. He added that it’s been that way throughout his career.

“It’s huge,” Hansen said. “It’s awesome to play behind guys like that.”

Even so, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley emphasized that there’s always room for improvement. In Anae’s case, missed assignments are a concern. He had the most on the team in 2017.

“That tells you, as productive as he was, he also gave up a lot. So the goal for him this year is just to become a smarter football player,” said Scalley, who added that assistant coaches Gary Andersen and Powell are doing a great job with Anae. “He’s matured. He understands that we can’t give up that many plays throughout a season, but again he’s our most productive defender. So you add that to becoming a smarter football player and I think he can really have a special year.”

But Anae has got to focus on that, Scalley emphasized. He’s confident it will happen because Anae came to Utah after working his tail off at Kahuku High School in Hawaii.

“So he came to us with that worker mentality,” said Scalley, who added that Anae is obviously one of the program’s most gifted football players..

“I think people look to him. No question. What you can’t ever question with Bradlee is his work ethic. You can never question that with him because he’s always a million miles per hour,” Scalley continued. “He’s a guy that could run gassers with the skill group and be OK. He’s just that talented. But it’s putting the mental aspect of the game to work, and he’s doing a very nice job in spring ball.”