SALT LAKE CITY — It was never a guarantee that either Bradlee Anae or Leki Fotu would be back at Utah this season.
In fact, after each had a strong 2018-19 campaign — Anae finished fifth on the team in total tackles (51), second in tackles for a loss (15.5) and first in sacks (8), while Fotu’s 33 tackles, 5.5 TFLs and three sacks rated among the best of any Utah interior linemen — the general consensus was that at least one of the two wouldn’t be with the team this year.
The NFL was calling, after all, a fact Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham readily accepted. Whittingham even anticipated the departure of at least one of a group of juniors that included Zach Moss, Julian Blackmon, Anae and Fotu, though he admitted that two departures were more likely.
Not a single underclassmen declared for the draft, however, and as it turns out, neither Anae nor Fotu were really even that close to leaving.
Both, it seems, had more than a few compelling reasons to return to the U.
A senior from Laie, Hawaii, Anae made his decision to return quickly upon learning his draft grade.
That grade placed Anae somewhere in the third or fourth rounds, which wasn’t at all what he wanted.
“I got my draft evaluation back from league sources and my draft grade wasn’t what I wanted in order for me to go,” he said. “I wanted to see around the second round, but they projected me in rounds three or four. That just wasn’t what I wanted.”
The reason he wanted a second-round draft evaluation was Anae needed some convincing. He wanted to stay in school.
“It wasn’t a very hard decision,” Anae said. “I wanted to stay and finish school. I want to get my degree.”
That degree will come in consumer studies, with a financial planning emphasis — “It has a long name,” Anae quipped.
While his education was the primary reason for his return, other things played a role as well, including the opportunity to play alongside the rest of Utah’s defensive line for one final season.
“It was a perk. I get to stay with the guys,” Anae said. “It solidified my decision. I’d love to play two more years with these guys, you know?”
Then there are Anae’s ambitions on the field.
“I am chasing the sack record, the career sack record,” he said.
With 17 sacks to his name, Anae trails Hunter Dimick by 12.5 sacks — Dimick set the school record at 29.5, a total he racked up from 2013-16.
- Utah Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (6) flushes UCLA Bruins quarterback Wilton Speight (3) out of the pocket during the University of Utah versus UCLA football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. Steve Griffin, Deseret News
- Utah Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (6)celebrates a sack as Utah and Stanford play a football game in Palo Alto California on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
- Utah Utes defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) brings down Weber State Wildcats quarterback Kaden Jenks (11) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
- Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) lines up for a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Washington, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Young Kwak, AP
The gulf between the two is daunting, but Anae doesn’t care.
“Hopefully I can attain more success on the field,” he said.
Fotu’s reasons for returning overlap Anae’s in many ways.
There is the chance to play with his fellow D-lineman.
“I’m truly grateful to play with everyone coming back, especially Bradlee,” Fotu said. “To have Bradlee back, one of the top edge rushers in the country, we are lucky to have him. Also the younger guys though, they have experience from playing last year. Having everyone back, it is going to be a great year.”
His draft stock also played a role.
Projected in most cases as a mid-round pick — the fifth round was often touted — Fotu was pleasantly surprised with his evaluation.
“When I sent out my grade to the NFL and it came back I was pretty shocked myself to see where the grade was,” he said.
Instead of convincing him to declare, however, those projections motivated Fotu to return to school and up his stock even more.
“At that moment, I knew for sure what I was capable of doing,” he said. “I had a long talk with my mom, with my family, and I thought the best decision for me was to stay and see if I could up my stock.”
For all the reasons to return to school, none, for either player, was more important than redemption.
“We have a lot of unfinished business,” said Anae.
That business revolves around Utah’s first berth in the Pac-12 championship game, as well as the team’s first defeat on that stage.
“Last year we went to the Pac-12 championship,” said Fotu. “Just to get that feeling, to go, its indescribable, but we didn’t have the outcome that we pictured. I thought it was only right to come back and make history for our team again, to win it all the way.”
“Last season didn’t end the way we wanted,” added Anae. “That’s why I am back.”
Their respective returns have only been a plus.
“Those guys have come back and that is such a huge benefit to us,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said.
“It is awesome,” Utah defensive line coach Lewis Powell added. “They came back.”
“There were just more things to gain,” Anae said.
“It was only right to come back,” added Fotu.
And back they are.