SALT LAKE CITY — They are all back.
That was the prevailing message surrounding any discussion of Utah football’s defensive line throughout the opening week of spring practice.
Everyone is back.
Leki Fotu is back, flowing locks and all. The senior was responsible for 33 tackles and three sacks a year ago.
John Penisini, the analytics darling, is back, along with his 38 tackles, two sacks and eight tackles for a loss.
So are disruptive edge rushers Bradlee Anae (51 tackles, eight sacks, three pass deflections and two forced fumbles) and Maxs Tupai (32 tackles, six tackles for a loss and three sacks), arguably the pleasant surprise a season ago.
There is also Pita Tonga, he of the 12 tackles, three for a loss, two and a half sacks, and an interception, and Hauati Pututau (19 tackles, four tackles for a loss and a sack).
There are other lesser-known names returning as well, including more than a few redshirt freshmen such as Eli Morrow, Fua Pututau, Tyler Gonzalez and Jackson Cravens, not to mention a transfer or two, such as Viane Moala.
All told, nearly 20 defensive linemen returned this season — the spring roster listed 17 — and they brought excitement with them.
“It is awesome,” Utah defensive line coach Lewis Powell said. “They all came back. We were lucky enough not to have any guys graduate.”
“Leki Fotu, John Penisini, Bradlee Anae, all of those guys have come back and that is such a huge benefit to us,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley added.
The benefit of so much returned experience has already been felt.
For one thing, with so much continuity along the defensive line, the aim of spring football is as simple as it gets.
Rather than having to develop depth, everything is about fundamentals and technique.
“We have a good group and we are just going to make sure these guys are fine-tuning their fundamentals, techniques and understand their assignments,” Powell said. “We ran Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 3 about 60 percent of our snaps last year, so that is what we are going to work on the most. Fundamentals and technique in our base front.”
“The goal is just to get better,” Penisini added. “We want to be better at what we usually do, things like coming off the ball, strike, drive and clear. It is about working on the little things, so we can get better at our fundamentals, our technique.”
That single-minded focus has turned Utah’s defensive linemen into the preeminent leaders of this year’s defense.
“We have good leaders on the defensive line,” Scalley said. “They bring the leather, they set the tempo. That is such a huge benefit to us, not just because they are good players, but because everyone follows them. Everyone sees them running to the ball and thinks, ‘OK, that is a big deal.’”
Continuity can also bring its challenges — “It becomes repetitive,” Penisini said — but the Utes hope that the bonds shared by the linemen will help them overcome any sort of plateauing.7 comments on this story
“Our coaches always tell us that the best ones find a way to keep doing what they do every day. Just work every day,” Penisini said. “Being a senior now, I have to push myself to do extra, but we all hang out together off the field so it will be easy for guys to get together and do the full work that we need.”
Ultimately, everyone just wants the season to begin already.
“A lot of these guys were young last year and they picked up the rifle and continued to march,” said Powell. “We are excited and I can’t wait to see these guys play.”
“The chemistry is awesome,” added Penisini. “We all know our jobs and where to go as a team. Communication was a big factor last year and I think we have picked up right where we left off.”