Utah’s Junior Tafuna eager to improve after being named Pac-12’s top freshman defender last year
Tafuna had been recruited as a defensive end but once he arrived on campus after serving a two-year mission, coaches switched him to defensive tackle
Utah defensive lineman Junior Tafuna woke up one morning last December and received news that, for him, was stunning, exciting and humbling.
That’s when he learned he had been named Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
“I was kind of shocked,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’”
But the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder out of Bingham High credited his coaches — including Sione Pouha, who retired after the 2021 season — and his teammates for the honor.
Tafuna had been recruited as a defensive end but once he arrived on campus after serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Praia, Cape Verde, coaches switched him to defensive tackle.
At that spot, Tafuna recorded 33 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup.
“The award really goes out to my teammates. They pushed me to get there,” Tafuna said. “And coach Pouha, he taught me a new position I was learning. I took his advice and his feedback. He led me along the way. So did my brothers. They had that faith in me so I was able to win that. I’m humbled by it.”
Though he’s only a sophomore, Tafuna is taking on more of a leadership role this season.
“I like to play around and have fun,” he said. “It’s been a humbling experience because I’ve grown and matured out here on the field. I’m just taking things more seriously and it’s helped me a lot.”
What did Tafuna learn from last season and what has he focused on during the offseason?
“One thing is preparation. You never know when your number is going to get called. You’ve got to be prepared. I’m trying to remind myself every day to be prepared because you never know when it’s going to be my last down or my last play with my brothers,” he said.
“One thing specifically I’ve worked on is being more attentive and smarter on the field. Looking at my keys, looking at the guard, seeing his eyes, reading the backfield and the tight ends, everything. I’ve tried to engrain that this fall camp.”
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is impressed with Tafuna’s development over the years.
“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. Our staff does an unbelievable job making sure we’re putting on the right weight, not doing it too quick,” Scalley said.
“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 can attest to Tafuna’s talent and long-term potential.
“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.”
By the end of fall camp, Tafuna hopes “to be technically sound and mentally smart. Knowing the down and distance, knowing what to expect. I want to play because I know what’s going to come,” he said. “That’s my biggest focus, to be mentally smart and just keep being a leader.”
Evidenced by his Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year recognition, Tafuna appears to be the next in a long line of outstanding defensive linemen produced by Utah.
Tafuna appreciates those players that have come before him.
“It helps me to know that there’s a standard to live up to. The D-line here at Utah is a culture. It’s a tradition,” he said. “To have them lead by example sets a standard for us and we appreciate it. We make sure every day in our meetings that we live up to it and push ourselves to exceed them.”