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Utah's defensive line is reloading, not rebuilding, after losing three starters

SALT LAKE CITY — Upon his return to Utah, associate head coach Gary Andersen noted that the program’s defensive line is always expected to play at a high level. That will never change, he added.

Andersen would know. Before head coaching stops at Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State, it was a position group he worked closely with during stints as an assistant with the Utes from 1997-2002 and 2004-08.

Such is the case this time around, too. Since rejoining the staff in January, Andersen has quickly taken stock of the group that he and defensive line coach Lewis Powell oversee. He said Utah has great, talented and hard-working kids.

“This whole group wants their football IQ to grow,” said Andersen, who explained that the players took advantage of what they call football school over the summer. “It’s not just about an ‘A’ gap and a ‘B’ gap and a ‘C” gap. It’s about pre-snap awareness. It’s about tendencies. It’s about your techniques, your fundamentals.

“Are you studying your spring film that you watched? I think they’ve done a good job with that. They want to learn,” he continued.

Utah’s defensive line is reloading after losing starters Kylie Fitts, Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi to graduation. Junior Bradlee Anae is the lone returnee with extensive starting experience.

The cupboard, though, is far from bare. The Utes, as usual, have a lot of options up front.

“We expect to be among the best d-lines every year in the Pac-12,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who explained that he doesn’t foresee any problem in getting five or six tackles in the rotation and at least four defensive ends.

The Utes, he continued, have an m.o. on the d-line. They reload every year with a group that plays to a Pac-12 caliber level.

This season’s early frontrunners include junior Leki Fotu (6-5, 323), sophomore Hauati Pututau (6-3, 296), sophomore Pita Tonga (6-1, 301), junior John Penisini (6-2, 315), freshman Paul Maile (6-2, 285) and Jackson Cravens (6-3, 310) on the inside. Hawaii transfer Viane Moala (6-6, 299), a junior, joins the group on the field next year.

Anae (6-3, 254) headlines the defensive ends. Others in the mix include junior Caleb Repp (6-5, 230), redshirt freshman Mika Tafua (6-3, 250), sophomore Maxs Tupai (6-1, 250), sophomore Nick Heninger (6-2, 244) and sophomore Davir Hamilton (6-2, 240). Whittingham said junior college transfer Jeremiah Jordan (6-5, 235) could join the Utes by the end of the month.

“Kids are coming out and they’re putting in a lot of effort and they’re working hard,” said Powell, who expects the defensive linemen to continue getting better and he’s excited to see what they do.

There’s plenty of reason for optimism.

“Overall I think everyone could play,” Fotu said. “It’s a battle right now during fall camp on whoever makes the most plays.”

As such, the competition is keen. Offensive lineman Lo Falemaka has taken notice. He predicts his defensive counterparts are “going to be great this year.”

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley acknowledged that game experience is the biggest thing going into the season. The Utes, he added, are also still working through who will play on the opposite side of Anae, the left end.

The latter is part of a bigger picture up front along the line.

“You want to have eight guys in this league, right? You want to have eight guys you can feel pretty good about getting on the field,” said Andersen, who noted that, as always, the Utes need to do a really nice job on the edges, rush the passer and contain the outside run game.

Andersen said Anae is as talented of a guy as he’s been around — driven, tough and excited about the opportunities ahead of him.

“I think our d-line works well with each other,” Anae said. “We have a good chemistry and we’re all ready to work hard.”

Whittingham acknowledged that he’s on the same page as Andersen when it comes to numbers. Eight is great.

“That’s ideal. If you have two complete sets that you can put in and rotate through and have no drop-off — or very little drop-off — that’s a huge luxury,” Whittingham said. “Because it’s hard for a 300-plus pound guy to play 80 or 90 snaps which is what you’re playing anymore. If you can play 40-45, that’s a huge difference. You’re much fresher.”

The latter, Whittingham explained, gives Utah a chance to keep playing at a high-intensity level throughout a game — something he noted isn’t easy to do against the tempo offenses play at these days.

”We think when all is said and done we will have eight guys at least,” Whittingham said.