Utah’s Connor O’Toole admits that his experience during the spring of 2022 was, at least at first, “kind of chaotic.”

That’s because a year ago he was making a challenging switch from wide receiver to defensive end. 

“They’ve set a standard. It’s not an easy standard to reach but everyone knows the standard in the room and we try to live up to it every day.” — Utah defensive end Connor O’Toole

“Last spring, I was kind of getting a feel for it and getting my feet underneath me a little bit. I was lighter,” O’Toole said. “I was getting pushed around a little bit. I was 230 pounds.” 

But a year later, and after playing 14 games at defensive end during the 2022 season, things are different. 

“Now I’m about 245 and I feel comfortable,” he said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m just trying to continue on that climb.”

O’Toole, a 6-foot-4 junior, has become a fixture in the Ute defense

“Connor came on strong at the end last season after an injury to Van Fillinger,” said defensive ends coach Lewis Powell. “He’s taken over the leadership role.”

During the spring, coach Kyle Whittingham singled out O’Toole as one of those that impressed him.  

Last season, O’Toole logged 41 tackles — 22 solo — and with four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also had a pass deflection and a fumble recovery. 

“I feel like I started to get comfortable in the second half of the Oregon game,” O’Toole said. “I built it from there and I’ve carried that through the spring and then into fall camp and into next season.”

What were the conversations like before he moved from receiver — he caught just one pass for five yards in 2021 — to tight end? 

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“There were rumors throughout the year about it and (former Utah receivers) coach (Chad) Bumphis when he was here, we talked about it during the season,” O’Toole said. “Obviously, I grinded through the season before (in 2021). I went to coach Bump and we had a conversation about it. We knew something was going to happen. … I talked to coach Whitt about it, and I stuck with it. It was either tight end or D-end. I wasn’t sure which one. I just told them whatever maximizes my potential is what I want to play.”

Repping ABQ

At La Cueva High in Albuquerque, New Mexico, O’Toole had experience on both sides of the ball. 

“I played a little bit of everything. I played a little linebacker and I’d speed rush occasionally. I played defense growing up,” he said. “I didn’t play offense, really, until high school. I started playing receiver in high school and I stuck with it. I played defense sporadically but now it’s all defense.”

When O’Toole signed with the Utes, he did so because of the family atmosphere and their track record with developing athletes. 

“It was the way they recruited me,” O’Toole said. “When I came in, it was, ‘We’ll see where your body takes you. We’ll let you play a couple of different positions.’ That was big for me, just knowing that they had a plan for me and the trust I had in the staff was awesome.”

Meanwhile, O’Toole is proud to be from The Duke City. 

“Albuquerque is home. I love Albuquerque. Everyone gives me crap for it, but I’ll rep it till I die,” he said. “The Mexican food there is second-to-none. If you’re ever looking for some good Mexican food, come to Albuquerque and I’ll show you some good food. The green chile grows in the valley of New Mexico. You don’t find it anywhere else, really. It’s home for me. I love it there. My parents bring me food. I’ll go home for most of May and I’ll get some food, which will be nice.”

‘Pass-rush get-off’

To the casual observer, a defensive lineman getting to a quarterback may seem simplistic. But defensive linemen like O’Toole said there are several technical skills involved in being able to record sacks.

What is O-Toole working on in that regard?

“Just pass-rush get-off. That’s always important,” he said. “Then just working on my hands and being more stout in the run. Hands and get-off, mainly. Like I said, last year was a little chaotic. I knew what to do but I didn’t have the feel for it right away.

“Now, this spring, I’m getting a better feel for it. Everything is split-second. It happens so fast. Just reps after reps and just keep building on it and just knowing when to make a certain move or when to place your hands in a certain way.

“It’s very technical and it happens so fast — you have to be spot-on with it. Just chipping away every day. It’s a grind, for sure. But I’m just trying to enjoy it. It’s a grind but it’s a good grind.”

‘Everyone knows the standard’

Naturally, O’Toole is well aware of the history and tradition of Utah’s defensive line. 

“It’s awesome. You see all the great guys that have come through the program. They’ve set a standard,” he said. “It’s not an easy standard to reach but everyone knows the standard in the room and we try to live up to it every day. You go back and watch the film from years ago and the whole D-line always sticks out.”

As for the 2023 team, what is O’Toole’s sense of what will happen this fall? 

“Just a lot of guys that can play,” he said. “We have a strong culture here. Everyone talks about the family culture but it’s real — just the brotherhood and trust. We have some great football players. We’re just trying to build on that and build relationships with each other. We have high expectations for this year. We plan to get after it.”

Utah defensive ends Connor O’Toole, left, and Logan Fano jog on the field during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | Hunter Dyke, University of Utah Athletics