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Utah Utes football: Utes' defensive line may be among the nation's best

SALT LAKE CITY — Does Utah have the best defensive line in the nation? It's a big question for some big boys.

"We've got all the tools," said senior tackle Star Lotulelei. "I think once we put it all together, we have a real good chance of being the best."

With Lotulelei headlining a starting mix that includes Dave and Joe Kruger, Trevor Reilly and up-and-coming sophomore Nate Fakahafua, the Utes have more than just potential up front.

"They're right up there with the best we've had," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said while noting previous Ute defensive lines like the 1994 group with Luther Ellis and the 2004 squad with Sione Pouha and Steve Fifita. "We've had some pretty darn good D-lines come through here."

The latest edition of the established tradition isn't worrying about its place in history. They're focused on the present.

"There's a lot of good defensive lines out there and what we're concerned with is being a better defensive line than anybody we play," Whittingham said. "That's what the objective is."

Whether that leads to being the best defensive line in the country remains to be seen.

Whittingham said time will tell.

"We've got a lot of good players. We're very deep, particularly at defensive tackle. We've got six or seven guys at D-tackle that we feel real good about," he explained. "But we've got to perform when the lights are on. So we'll find out if we're up to the task."

Just being good, though, doesn't cut it. Lotulelei said Utah's defensive line is determined to get better every day.

"We'll never be satisfied and I think that's what it takes to be the best," he explained, while noting it's a message that defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a is always trying to convey.

"We strive to be the best in the country. When we come out every day, we work hard to be that group," Kauha'aha'a said. "Only time will tell. We've got to get on the field and see what we can do."

Where the line ranks nationally, he continued, may not be known until the end of the season.

Kauha'aha'a said the coaches and players don't fret over such things.

"We're a humble, hard-working group," he explained. "I know people talk about it, but it's not something we think about."

Even so, Kauha'aha'a said the Utes work like they're the No. 1 defensive line in the country.

"We're going to see how our D-line performs. As far as I know, our D-line is the best right now," said senior tackle Dave Kruger. "I hope we're the best and I think we will be the best."

As far as Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake is concerned, the debate over who has the best defensive line in the nation is a question for others to answer.

"It's one of those things like the Dream Team, which Dream Team is better?" Sitake said. "I don't know. All I know is I hope (our defensive line) gets us some wins and it means we're going to have success as a team and as a defense."

Sitake added that the Utes have a good group and that he's eager to see how it all comes together.

The forecast, however, is bright.

"I know that they will be a force for us," Sitake said.

It all begins on the inside where Lotulelei plays. He won the Morris Award as the Pac-12's top defensive lineman last season and has been projected to go as high as No. 1 overall in next year's NFL draft.

"Star Lotulelei makes everybody better. We're a good front because Star is that good of a player," Kauha'aha'a said. "All he cares about is playing football and the accomplishments of the team."

Lotulelei's linemates are also looking at the big picture.

"We've got a ways to go," said Reilly, a versatile junior who is also a linebacker. "There's always room for improvement."

There's plenty of motivation to keep working hard.

"I'm not going to say we're the best D-line in the country. But I'm going to say we are going to be one of the best," said Joe Kruger, a junior end. "We've got some serious players and we've got a lot of depth. So I think we're going to do really well."

How well?

"Either we're going to be the best D-line in the country or one of the best," he added.

Season-opening defensive line depth chart

Left end

8 — Nate Fakahafua (6-3, 250, Soph.) OR

9 — Trevor Reilly (6-5, 245, Jr.)

22 — Thretton Palamo (6-2, 250, Jr.)


44 — Dave Kruger (6-5, 300, Sr.)

91 — Tenny Palepoi (6-2, 305, Jr.)


92 — Star Lotulelei (6-4, 320, Sr.)

98 — Viliseni Fauonuku (5-11, 294, Fr.)

Right end

99 — Joe Kruger (6-7, 280, Jr.) OR

9 — Trevor Reilly (6-5, 245, Jr.)


Northern Colorado at Utah

Rice-Eccles Stadium

Thursday. 5:15 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Comcast: Ch. 37 (SD)/Ch. 757 (HD)

Radio: ESPN 700

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