Utah defensive lineman Van Fillinger was leading the team in sacks last November when he suffered a season-ending lower-leg injury.

At that point, he had recorded 18 tackles, and a team-high five sacks along with two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. 

“My pass rush needs a little bit more work. I started to figure it out at the end of the season, right before I got hurt. I’ll keep working on my craft.” — Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss

The 6-foot-4, 256-pound junior isn’t participating in spring practices as he recovers from the injury but defensive ends coach Lewis Powell is looking forward to Fillinger’s return. 

“He’s doing really well. He’s ahead of schedule. He’s someone that’s disappointed that he’s not in spring yet. At some point, he’ll be able to join us. It’s year four for him being a starter,” Powell said. “When he got hurt, he was one of our best defenders on the field. We missed him for half a season but he’s excited to get back and get things going.”

Powell has a bunch of other defensive ends that he has high expectations for this fall, including Connor O’Toole and Jonah Elliss. 

O’Toole recorded 30 tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in 2022. Elliss registered 20 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. 

“Connor came on strong at the end last season after an injury to Van Fillinger. He’s taken over the leadership role,” he said. “Jonah and Van are guys we’ll count on. Connor, Van and Jonah are the guys that started for me last year and they’re all coming back. They’re good leaders.

“We have Ka’eo Akana, Chase Kennedy and Logan Fano following the lead of those guys. We’re really happy with their progress. They busted their butts during the offseason. It’s going to be a huge spring for those young guys.”

Elliss has been limited during the spring as he heals from ankle and shoulder injuries. 

“It’s going good. It’s a little slow for me. I’m struggling with a few injuries from the end of last season,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of rehab, honestly, trying to get back out there with the boys. I’ll get back out there.”

What is Elliss focusing on when it comes to improvement?

“My pass rush needs a little bit more work,” he said. “I started to figure it out at the end of the season, right before I got hurt. I’ll keep working on my craft.”

Powell is happy with Elliss’ development. 

“Jonah is another guy that has a bunch of ability. He’s really athletic. He’s explosive, a lot like his three brothers and his father, who played in the NFL,” he said. “He’s a guy that we have high hopes for. He’s meeting everything that we ask him to do.

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“He’s just going to be another Elliss that will end up in the NFL. He’s doing really well right now. He’s becoming a leader and he’s continuing to get better. I love his progress so far.”

Elliss likes what he’s seen from the defense overall this spring. 

“We’re just excited,” he said. “We know we have a lot of experience coming back. We’re excited to let it out and go ball-out with the boys. As a defense, we’re really solid.”

Powell is emphasizing leadership out of all of his defensive ends. 

“You can’t get enough leadership on the team — owning the responsibility and making sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do and doing it at a high level and just being consistent as a group,” he said. “Executing with fundamentals and techniques and eliminating mental errors. We always need better pass rushers, right? We’ve got to get better at every single area and continue to grow and develop as a group.” 

Utah defensive end Connor O’Toole celebrates after breaking up a pass during game against Arizona Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press