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Utah's offensive line rebuilding after the NFL drafted four

Utah's Salesi Uhatafe prepares to block a Washington defender on Oct. 29,  2016 in Salt Lake City.
Utah's Salesi Uhatafe prepares to block a Washington defender on Oct. 29, 2016 in Salt Lake City.
Steve C. Wilson, Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

SALT LAKE CITY — Salesi Uhatafe is kind of like the last man standing. Months after four Utah offensive linemen were taken in the NFL draft — Garett Bolles, Isaac Asiata, J.J. Dielman and Sam Tevi — Uhatafe is the lone regular starter returning up front for the 25th-ranked Utes.

It’s not a situation that the 6-foot-5, 320-pound senior is shying away from. The Texan expresses confidence in the team as a whole and everyone who is filling in the gaps along the line.

At the Pac-12 media days, Uhatafe predicted that they’re going to surprise a lot of people. As one of the more experienced hands, he’ll likely be one of the guys leading the charge.

“I feel like I’ve stepped up in a way that’s trying to show some support and leadership by example,” Uhatafe said. “I’m excited for our team.”

Although Uhatafe isn’t one of the more vocal guys on the team, Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding said that the Texan is doing a nice job in terms of how the guys respond to him.

“He doesn’t say a ton, but when he does the kids listen,” Harding said.

Uhatafe is backed by impressive credentials. He has played in all 39 games over the past three seasons (making 25 starts) and led the line with 936 regular-season plays in 2016.

In the classroom, Uhatafe has already earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Graduation isn’t the only recent change he’s experienced. The NFL departures have also led to a move from three years at right guard to right tackle.

Utah entered training camp with a depth chart featuring Uhatafe, highly touted junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva (6-4, 345) at right tackle, senior Lo Fakemala (6-5, 287) at center, sophomore Darrin Paulo (6-5, 312) at left guard, and junior Jackson Barton (6-7, 312) at left tackle.

Backups on the early chart include Johnny Capra (6-6, 296), Kyle Lanterman (6-2, 290), Paul Toala (6-4, 317), Orlando Umana (6-4, 330) and Scott Peck (6-6, 307).

“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that have the talent,” Harding said. “But they just don’t have a ton of experience.”

As such, he explained that they’re “still working on it” in terms of replacing the NFL departees. In addition to Uhatafe, Barton (two games) and Fakemala (one game) are the only others with starting experience for the Utes.

Even so, Harding is confident there are enough talented guys to be successful.

“That first group of five looks very solid and then we’ve got two or three more guys that we feel are ready,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve got to add another guy or two to that ready-to-play group.”

Senior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei, who goes up against the offensive line each day in practice, has great confidence in what’s happening on the other side of the ball.

“I don’t think they’re going to lose a step,” Lotulelei said. “… They’re just going to hold it down. The older guys pass down that mentality and the younger guys have to hold it up.”

At left tackle, Barton steps into the starting role Bolles had before becoming a first-round pick of the Denver Broncos.

“We were roommates last year so we were always just talking with each other, just making sure we were keeping each other straight and on the narrow path,” said Barton, who acknowledged that watching Bolles was beneficial. “He’s phenomenal. He’s making millions right now.”

Barton, though, is determined to carve out his own niche at the position.

“There’s a time and point where like you’ve got to make it your own game, too,” he explained. “So I can’t be Garett Bolles. I’m Jackson Barton. That’s what I’ve got to be.”

Barton has equal confidence in others filling vacancies on the line.

“I’ve been proud of these guys. They’ve been picking up the rifle filling these spots,” he added. “And I think we’re going to be real good this year.”


Twitter: @DirkFacer