Lewis Powell, who is in his seventh season coaching Utah’s defensive ends, also played for the Utes from 2001-03.
So he’s seen a lot of talented, highly skilled and productive defensive lines over the years.
This spring, Powell said the defensive ends group he’s working with now is the most athletic in program history.
“It’s a good young group. Practices have been really competitive,” he said. “We have a really good, deep, athletic group. I think it’s the most athletic group that’s ever been here.”
The Utes return Van Fillinger, Miki Suguturaga and Jonah Elliss, while Connor O’Toole has been switched from wide receiver to defensive end.
While Utah must replace Mika Tafua, who is off to the NFL, and Xavier Carlton, who transferred to Cal, Powell is optimistic about what this position can accomplish next fall.
“We have an awesome dynamic. Van and Miki are stout and strong. Connor and Jonah are really athletic, really high-ceiling,” he said. “We clocked both of those guys at 4.5. I don’t think we’ve ever had that kind of athleticism, ever. I think it’s going to be a group by committee. I’m excited by the growth of all five, six guys participating in spring ball.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham said he feels good about Fillinger, Elliss, O’Toole and Suguturaga.
“Jonah Elliss has had a really good spring. Connor O’Toole, who moved from wide receiver to defensive end, it seems to be a great fit for him. Miki Suguturaga is a guy that has played his best football this spring. So those four guys right now are the top four at that position. We have a couple of guys that are coming this summer that we’re excited about as well.”
Elliss was listed as a backup defensive end last season and saw time as a reserve linebacker. O’Toole, meanwhile, has moved from the offensive side of the ball to the defensive side.
“They both gained 15 to 20 pounds. Connor is almost 240 and Jonah has been 245. It’s been awesome,” Powell said. “They’re carrying the weight really well and they have the frame to continue to gain weight. We want them to be as heavy as they can without losing any explosive twitch and athleticism. They’ll continue to get better.”
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is looking forward to the ways he’ll be able to utilize the defensive ends, like Elliss.
“We’ve got a lot of those types that are athletic. The speed off the edge, the ability to drop in coverage, (Elliss) allows us to do quite a bit,” he said. “He’s also put on about 20 pounds. Now you’re talking about being stout in the run game and the ability to be an every-down guy.”
A year ago, as a freshman, Fillinger made the most of his opportunity to play in place of Maxs Tupai.
Fillinger has 12 career starts and recorded 40 tackles, including seven in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon. He led all Pac-12 freshmen with 5.5 sacks.
“As a pass rusher, he’s making huge strides in the spring. Coming into spring, he knew exactly what he needed to do to get better and to take that next step,” Powell said. “That’s what he’s been doing. It’s been awesome to see him develop and grow and work on his skill. He’s been doing a great job. He had three or four sacks in our (recent) scrimmage. It was pretty impressive to see.”
When it comes to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Powell said the Utes have plenty of players that can get that done.
“We’ve never had so many twitchy dudes on the D-line. I can’t wait to see our third-and-long group,” he said. “We also have Mohamoud (Diabate) who’s a big-time pass rusher and (linebacker) Lander Barton is a big-time pass rusher. We have a really good situation. Right now, the competition is really good. I’m excited to see who comes out of spring and fall as the starters.”
Powell said the defensive ends will be “by committee” because “there are so many guys that are so good. We’re not going to keep them on the side. For them to be on the field, and ready to go, we’ll probably have to rotate. We’ve never been so deep as a group before. If they can rotate and be fresh out there, I think that’s what we’re going to do without any drop-off.”