;I’m definitely trying to be one of the leaders. I tell our defense, 'This is the start to a new beginning for us to become the best.' Utah’s been known for its defense and we need to continue that physicality and relentlessness. – Utah defensive end Nate Orchard

SALT LAKE CITY — A lot has changed for Nate Orchard since he arrived at the University of Utah out of Highland High in 2011.

He left behind his beloved wide receiver position to solely play defensive end. He has packed more than 60 pounds onto his 6-foot-4-inch frame.

After his first year, he changed his number from 96 to 8 to honor his mother’s birthdate. Then before last season, he legally changed his last name from Fakahafua to Orchard to honor his legal guardians, Dave and Katherine Orchard. He also got married last year, and he and his wife, Maegan, have a young daughter.

This year, the big change for Orchard will be his role on the Ute team. As a senior, he will be counted on to be one of the team’s leaders, an opportunity he relishes and is already taking to heart.

“I’m definitely trying to be one of the leaders,’’ he said after a recent practice. “I tell our defense, 'This is the start to a new beginning for us to become the best.' Utah’s been known for its defense and we need to continue that physicality and relentlessness.’’

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake says he can’t believe Orchard is already a senior. He appreciates all the big plays he’s made the last three years for the Ute defense. With many younger players on the D-line, Sitake believes it’s time for Orchard to step into a leadership role like Trevor Reilly did last year.

“He’s doing great, the leader of our defense,’’ Sitake said. “We look to him to make big plays for us, but more than anything to be a leader. We don’t need to see him do much for us in the spring, just stay polished. Right now he’s focused on being a good leader and he’s doing a good job of that. He’s a senior and guys like him, (Brian) Blechen and Eric Rowe, they need to be the leaders of this team.’’

Orchard said the defense is playing with a new attitude this year, being more physical and feisty. In the first couple of weeks of practice, there have already been some heated confrontations between the defense and offense.

That’s OK, according to Orchard.

“That’s something we’ve lacked, the physicality,’’ he said. “We also need to be more emotional on the field.’’

Orchard said defensive backs coach Sharrieff Shah came up with something called PSR, an acronym the entire defense is adopting this year that stands for "physical, smart and relentless."

"That’s something we should strive for, to be physical, smart and relentless,’’ Orchard said. “We need to bring that day in and day out through our practices.’’

Orchard, who is penciled in as the starting defensive left end, has improved his size and strength — “just look at him” says Sitake — since last season.

“I’m bigger and faster,’’ Orchard said. “I’m 255 now and want to play at 260. Last year I was 245. Out of high school I was just 195.’’

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When he came to Utah after leading Highland High to the 2010 state 4A football title, Orchard could have been either a wide receiver or defensive lineman. He excelled at both at Highland, but it didn’t take long for the Utes to put him on the defensive side of the ball.

Although he has enjoyed the experience on defense and knows that’s where he has the best chance to succeed at the next level, Orchard still misses having the ball in his hands.

“Oh, definitely, every day,’’ he says about dreaming of being a wide receiver or tight end. “The first day (of spring practice), I got an interception and it felt great. It’s great catching the ball and moving around. That’s why I love being able to go in and attack the quarterback and see if I can get that ball out — it’s the best feeling ever.’’

Orchard did that to USC’s Matt Barkley in 2012, when he snatched the ball and scored a touchdown, and he'd love to do it again this year. As far as Orchard is concerned, the best is yet to come for himself and the Ute defense.

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