Utah focused on boosting defensive line play after struggles
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Strong defensive lines have long been a trademark of Utah’s football program.
But after experiencing a drop-off in production along the line of scrimmage a year ago, the Utes are focused on re-establishing their dominance up front this season.
“I want that to be sort of our thing this year where we’re just suffocating every game and every week,” junior defensive end Bradlee Anae said. “We did struggle a lot as far as third down conversions. It’s something that we’ve focused on this offseason as a whole unit, not just the defensive line.”
The Utes ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in third down conversion percentage against league opponents last season. They allowed 59 first downs in 135 third-down situations in conference games for a conversion rate of 43.7 percent. That ranked 95th among all FBS teams.
Utah is poised to take some steps forward this year after head coach Kyle Whittingham hired Gary Andersen as an associate head coach and defensive line coach in January. Andersen, who parted ways with Oregon State after a 1-5 start last season, is returning for his third stint as an assistant with the Utes.
He served as a defensive line coach and defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008, a period during which Utah became one of the top defensive teams in the Mountain West. The Utes finished in the top three in the conference in scoring defense every year during his tenure as defensive coordinator. Utah led the league in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense in 2007 and then finished in the top two in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and pass efficiency defense in 2008.
Now that Andersen is back assisting on the defensive line, alongside Lewis Powell, he is looking to instill the same level of stinginess in the current crop of Utes linemen.
“They’re playing, obviously, for this team in 2018, but they’re also playing for a tremendous tradition,” Andersen said. “We don’t shy away from that at all when we talk to them about it. We make sure they understand there’s high expectations for this group and there always will be at the University of Utah.”
Figuring out a two-deep along the line remains a work in progress because the Utes have loads of talent and a dearth of experience. Only Anae was a full-time starter a year ago. Four players, Pita Tonga, Leki Fotu, John Penisini and Hauati Pututau, are battling to start at the tackle spots. Anae and Caleb Repp are currently locked in at the ends.
Andersen wants to develop a true two-deep platoon at the tackle and end positions so that Utah can send in waves of linemen to wear down opposing defenses.
“We expect to get eight on the defensive front, a solid strong two-deep,” Andersen said. “But we’ll see how those reps are displaced as we go through camp. You have to earn your way to get on the field to get the reps. Just because you’re No. 2 doesn’t mean you’re going to play half the game.”
Pressure to live up to heightened expectations will always be strong for defensive linemen at Utah. But the players are embracing it.
Fotu points to older linemen who served as role models when he came into the program as a freshman. The depth at tackle and end gave him a chance to learn from how they practiced and played so that he would know how to approach things once he earned a chance to claim a starting job.
“It gives us something to look at and a goal to reach,” Fotu said. “The tradition definitely motivates us to get to that level and do more with it.”
None of the eight defensive linemen listed in the two-deep on Utah’s opening fall camp roster are seniors. Four are juniors and three are sophomores, setting the Utes up to build for this season and next.
Whittingham said the team has reached a point where reloading, not rebuilding, is the mode of operation for the defensive line from season to season.
“We expect to be among the best D-lines every year in the Pac-12,” Whittingham said.