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Short on experience, but big in size and talent, Ute offensive line ready to start season

Salesi Uhatafe, 74, lines up against Oregon on Nov. 19, 2016, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Uhatafe is the lone returning starter on the Utes' offensive line.
Salesi Uhatafe, 74, lines up against Oregon on Nov. 19, 2016, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Uhatafe is the lone returning starter on the Utes' offensive line.
Steve C. Wilson, University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The starting Utah offensive line may be inexperienced, but it’s certainly big — the five starters average 6-foot-5½, 312 pounds in size. Heading into Thursday night’s opener against North Dakota (5:30 p.m. Rice-Eccles Stadium), the O-line isn’t a position of concern on the Ute squad as much it was a month ago.

“They’ve really started to come together,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “The first objective is to get the best five guys out there and then put those five in the best positions. We wanted to make sure we had the best five guys out there. We’re very confident we’ve done that now.”

The five starters include left guard Salesi Uhatafe (6-5, 320), the only returning starter from last year, junior Jackson Barton (6-7, 312) at left tackle, Lo Falemaka (6-5, 295) at center, JC transfer Jordan Agasiva (6-4, 320) at right guard and Darrin Paulo (6-6 312) at right tackle.

Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor is also confident in his O-line as the season is about to get under way.

“It’s a good group — they’re talented, they’re young,” Taylor said. “They don’t have a lot of experience, but experience is something you get by playing. They’re willing, they’re passionate about it and I think they’re going to be a good group.

I don’t have a concern about the offensive line. We haven’t played a game yet, but they’re well-coached and ready to play.”

The players, of course, are confident in their abilities and believe the line won’t see much of a dropoff from last season’s O-line, which had four players selected in this spring's NFL Draft.

“I can see where (the naysayers) are coming from, but we’ll let our playing show everybody where we are,” said Falemaka, who started the Cal game last year only to get injured himself. “We’ve been following in the footsteps of Isaac Asiata, J.J. Dielman and those guys. Obviously they were doing something right, they’re all in the (NFL) right now.”

Falemaka is a senior from West Valley and prepped at Cottonwood High School before walking on at the U. He and teammate Marcel Manalo were victims of a shooting incident at a party two years ago. Falemaka has a 10-inch scar on his chest as well as a bullet in his left him as reminders, but is totally over the incident, saying, “That’s long past, it doesn’t bother me one bit.”

Falemaka sat out the first couple of weeks of practice with an undisclosed injury, but has been playing for the past two weeks at 100 percent.

“I’m over it, I’m good, I’m healthy,” he said. “I’m great and couldn’t be more excited for the season. We’re taking care of business every day in practice, in the weight room, the meeting room and on the field.”

The other local player on the offensive line is Barton, a Brighton High grad who played in several games the past two seasons on the offensive line, including two starts in 2016.

“We’re really molding together,” Barton said. “During the course of fall camp, I never really felt we were that inexperienced. I’ve always felt we’re ready to go.”

Barton says going against the Ute’s defensive line every day in practice has helped the offensive line unit to progress.

“Obviously our D-line is one of the best in the country,” he said. “Playing them every day is like a game, so it’s the best experience you can get.”

Both Whittingham and Taylor acknowledge that depth on the O-line is a concern, although Whittingham says, “We’ve got seven guys really ready to play and an eighth and ninth guy on the verge.” Taylor adds, “Depth is a concern at every position, but quarterback, honestly. These younger guys need to help out because you never know.”

The backups include sophomore Johnny Capra (6-6, 296), freshman Orlando Umana (6-4, 330), sophomore Paul Toala (6-4, 318), junior Alani Havili-Katoa (6-3, 307) and freshman Nick Ford (6-5, 315).

With eight of the top 10 players being underclassmen, the future looks bright for Utah's offensive line.

“We’re talented, but short on game experience and we’ll see how quickly those guys can jell,” Whittingham said. “Based on what we’ve seen in practice, they’ve come a long way and starting to look like a starting Pac-12 offensive line.”