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Utah football misses Maxs Tupai, but his absence opens ‘huge opportunity’ for others

Xavier Carlton and Van Fillinger are among those vying to fill the void left by Maxs Tupai

Freshman defensive end Xavier Carlton sacks Peter Costelli in the Red and White game in April in Salt Lake City.
Utah Utes quarterback Peter Costelli (8) is sacked by Utah Utes defensive end Xavier Carlton (44) during the Red and White game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Carlton is one of the leading candidates, along with Van Fillinger, to fill in for the absent Maxs Tupai.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

For freshman defensive end Xavier Carlton, the fact that a proven veteran ahead of him on the depth chart, Maxs Tupai, will not be playing this season is bittersweet.

“I look at it like, I lost my big brother, my mentor. From my freshman year, he was mentoring me in how to watch film and how to take the right steps,” said Carlton, a 6-foot-6, 272-pounder from Herriman. “Basically, it’s been hard losing Maxs. But it’s a big opportunity. I’m going to fill his shoes but I’m also going to be repping it for him, too. He’ll always be in my ear, telling me, ‘Take this step, take that step.’”

Carlton and freshman Van Fillinger are among those vying to fill the void left by Tupai, who will not be available in 2021, according to coach Kyle Whittingham, for undisclosed reasons.

“Huge opportunity. Couldn’t be a bigger opportunity for those guys. They’re both excited about that opportunity,” Whittingham said. “My guess is they’ll answer the bell and do just fine. Miki Suguturaga is the other guy in the mix. It’s an opportunity. When something happens to somebody, it’s somebody else’s opportunity. That’s how they’ve got to look at it. We certainly didn’t want to lose Maxs, but that’s the situation we’re in.”

Both Fillinger and Carlton saw action during the pandemic-affected, five-game 2020 season.

“We’ve been working for a year. I like to think that I did get better in that time and I feel a lot more comfortable out on the field,” said Fillinger, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound Corner Canyon High product. “Our team’s all together and we’re ready for a full season. It’s real different and I’m excited for it.”

Fillinger, who recorded three total tackles including two tackles against No. 20 USC, realizes there’s a big gap between playing high school football and college football.

“When I came here, I was thinking, ‘I’m competing for a spot.’ But there are a lot of things that you don’t understand when you’re in high school, the IQ aspect of the game and understanding what to do in certain situations is a big part of this,” he said. “I think I have gotten a lot better at that. I worked my (butt) off trying to get better. I am trying my best. Looking forward to a good season. I’m going to try to do the best for my team and make plays and help us get a Pac-12 championship.”

Junior Mika Tafua is anchoring the other defensive end spot for the Utes. He said Fillinger has been looking good during fall camp.

“He’s a specimen. He’s big and tall, fast and strong,” Tafua said. “It’s getting the mental side of the game down. He’s really good.”

Tafua is optimistic about what the younger players can provide the defense this year.

“Last year was a good season for them to get their toes in the water a little bit. I expect them to keep growing and keep getting better,” he said. “Just like I’m trying to get better, I expect them to do the same thing. We all hold each other accountable. It all works like a machine.”

Tafua added that with Tupai out, Fillinger and Carlton have a chance to make an impact.

“It gives them a huge opportunity because Maxs was definitely a good player,” he said. “Right now, they’re battling it out in fall camp. At the end of fall camp, we’ll see who’s been on their stuff.”