As good as Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna was last season as a freshman, the coaching staff is confident that his best is yet to come. 

A 6-foot-3, 297-pound, three-star recruit out of Bingham High, Tafuna served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Praia, Cape Verde, before joining the program in 2020.

While Tafuna didn’t play that season, in 2021, he recorded 33 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup. 

For his efforts, he earned Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors and Associated Press Pac-12 All-Conference Second-Team recognition.

“He’s a guy that we recruited to be a D-end. He goes on a mission and comes back and he’s a little heavier than a regular D-end,” said defensive ends coach Lewis Powell.

“We move him inside and the twitchiness just continues. … He continues to develop. He’s going to be special to watch this year, for sure.”

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Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is pleased with Tafuna’s development.

“This is a guy that was playing linebacker and D-end in high school. We knew he was twitchy enough. It was a matter of putting on the weight,” he said. “Our staff does an unbelievable job making sure we’re putting on the right weight, not doing it too quick.

“He’s devoted his time during the offseason to putting on the right weight. He’s another 15 pounds heavier than he was. He’s striking very well. We anticipate him having a very special season.”

First-year defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss sees Tafuna’s talent and long-term potential. 

Utah Utes defensive tackle Junior Tafuna adjusts his mask during a Rose Bowl press conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“There’s no ceiling with him. He has unbelievable talent. He does some things that some other guys really can’t,” Elliss said.

“He’s that explosive and that talented. He has a high ceiling, if there is a ceiling. I think he’s going to be even better than he was last year.”

Defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi loves being a part of the Utes’ defensive tackles room. 

“We have the guys. Everyone’s athletic enough. We’ve got some guys that are freaky in all different ways. Everyone has their strengths. It’s harping on the technique stuff because that’s what will carry us through. It’s what we’re trying to get out of spring ball, fundamentals and technique,” he said. “That’s been the overarching objective. The headline is fundamentals and technique.

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“In the D-tackle room, we’re young. I’m really the only upperclassman. Even me, I’m trying to learn technique and fundamentals. I love our D-tackle room. It’s a big reason why I came back. We definitely have the talent and skill there. Fundamentals and technique is what will take us beyond where we want to be.”

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During the spring, Kaufusi, Tafuna and the rest of the defensive tackles focused on technique and fundamentals.

That’s the secret of Utah’s longstanding success on the defensive line. 

“Coach Elliss is trying to instill habits in us. It’s making that greatness become a habit,” Kaufusi said. “Our hand strike, shedding blocks — it’s all a habit, to where you don’t have to think about a technique or a fundamental, you just become the football player you know you can be.

“He’s been able to lift our vision and lengthen our stride as a defensive tackle room to become that.” 

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