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‘The embodiment of Utah defense’: How Mika Tafua builds up younger players through his example

Not only does Tafua, a preseason Pac-12 All-Conference first-team selection, produce results, but his teammates respect him, learn from him and try to follow him

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Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua (42) celebrates a sack as Utah and Washington play in the Pac-12 championship game.

Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua (42) celebrates a sack as Utah and Washington play in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When it comes to establishing the next iteration, and the next generation, of Utah’s defense, and carrying on its brand, the Utes have the ideal representative in junior defensive end Mika Tafua.

Tafua is a preseason Pac-12 All-Conference first-team selection after earning Pac-12 second-team honors last season. Not only does Tafua produce results, but his teammates also respect him, learn from him, and try to follow his example.

“Mika is the embodiment of Utah defense. Everyone could agree on that. There’s no question. That’s a big thing to say, knowing what Utah defense is,” said defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi. “Our culture is ‘RSNB’ — relentless, smart, nasty ballhawks. Mika, every snap, every practice, has that with him. I love being here with him. I’ve known him since high school. He’s been that solid foundation, a true anchor in the Utah defense and the Utah tradition.” 

“Our culture is ‘RSNB’ — relentless, smart, nasty ballhawks. Mika, every snap, every practice, has that with him.” — Utah defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi

Tafua takes his responsibility seriously — helping push forward that tradition and helping his younger teammates understand what it means to play on the defensive line for the Utes. 

“It has a reputation for being smart and nasty. It all starts in fall camp and practice. Running to the ball, making sure that we’re aggressive,” Tafua said. “Our coaches make sure we do that. We hold ourselves accountable so that we all have that edge when we play.”

The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder from Laie, Hawaii, prepped at Kamehameha High before arriving at Utah. In 2019, Tafua started 13 games at right end and recorded 47 tackles, including 8.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks to go along with two passes defended and four fumble recoveries. 

During the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Tafua had 14 tackles, including three tackles-for-loss and three sacks. He also tallied two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. 

Over the years, Tafua has also become a strong leader. 

“He is awesome. He’s a hard-worker; he’s a great leader. He’s one of the best leaders we’ve had here in a while. He doesn’t only show it on the field,” said defensive ends coach Lewis Powell. “Off the field, he’s a good leader. He doesn’t only care about what he’s doing, he wants to get others to go along with him. We’re excited for his junior year.”

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Utah defensive end Mika Tafua gets in some work during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes are expecting big things from their junior defender, both in production and as a leader on that side of the ball.

University of Utah Athletics

With another veteran defensive lineman, Maxs Tupai, not playing this season, it created a void as well as an opportunity for freshmen Van Fillinger and Xavier Carlton, who both look up to Tafua for advice and support. 

“Mika is so different because he’s a workhorse. When I came here, he taught me that you have to do extra work. You can’t run through the motions,” Fillinger said. “You have to do it on your own time. He taught me that yoga is really good so I’ve been getting into yoga. I’ve been lifting on my own time. Mika’s taught me a lot. He’s been guiding me.”

“Mika’s awesome. Today, I was struggling a little bit,” Carlton said. “He pulled me aside and he told me, ‘You can’t be perfect. Just work on your craft. The sky’s the limit.’ He helps me out and tells me his moves. He’s a good dude.”

When asked about which players set the tone on the defense, star linebacker Devin Lloyd was quick to mention Tafua. 

“I’m not the only leader in that front seven. Mika Tafua sets the example every day. Everybody in that front seven takes pride in what they’ve got to do. We have a lot of veterans on that D-line,” — Ute linebacker Devin Lloyd

“I’m not the only leader in that front seven. Mika Tafua sets the example every day. Everybody in that front seven takes pride in what they’ve got to do. We have a lot of veterans on that D-line,” Lloyd said. “Yes, I take pride in setting the example and setting the tone but I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of guys on that front seven that have been here just as long as I have and they’ve been doing it the right way.”

A year ago, the Utes had nine new starters on defense, including several freshmen. Tafua said the momentum from last season will carry over into this season. 

“Not only for myself and the D-line but the defense and as a team altogether. We’re continuing building off of last season,” Tafua said. “Everybody came back and everybody’s been working in the offseason and we’ve been holding each other accountable. That’s why I’m excited. We’ve been putting in the work during the offseason.”

Kaufusi appreciates the way Tafua embraces his leadership role.

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Utah defensive end Mika Tafua participates in a drill during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

University of Utah Athletics

“He leads by example. He cares. That sets him apart. He has high expectations for all the guys,” he said. “That’s part of playing on the defensive line here at Utah. He shows a lot of love toward all the guys. He’s always lifting others and compelling them to get better.”

Carlton is one of those players that’s been influenced by Tafua, and the other veterans, to carry on Utah’s reputation on defense. 

“It takes dedication, hard work and patience, of course. Those three things. Being great, honestly. I learn from Devin Lloyd and Mika and the older vets on the defense,” Carlton said. “You have to work on your down time, when nobody’s looking, working on your craft. Those are my big brothers and I look up to them and I’m following in their footsteps.”