Utah sophomore defensive tackle Simote Pepa grew up a BYU fan.

His parents attended BYU-Hawaii, so Pepa cheered for the Cougars during his childhood.

That is, until Utah kept winning the rivalry game.

“Every year when I was a kid, I just saw the team down south lose to Utah every year over that nine-game streak and I just couldn’t take it anymore. ... I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to go to the winning team.’” — Utah defensive tackle Simote Pepa

“Every year when I was a kid, I just saw the team down south lose to Utah every year over that nine-game streak and I just couldn’t take it anymore. ... I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to go to the winning team,’” Pepa said.

“Ever since then I just loved Utah and I just saw that the D-line group was just so good at the University of Utah that I had to join in.”

The three-star prospect from Bingham High chose to play at Utah over offers from BYU, Wisconsin, Oregon, Tennessee and Nebraska, committing in 2019 before serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Returning in 2021 for his freshman season, Pepa had worries about adjusting to the demands of Division I football, but he settled in with a little help from his friends.

“It took me a while. It was very different. The scheme’s very different compared to high school. There’s a lot more details that go into everything,” he said.

“Honestly, just trusting the coaches. They walked me through every step of the way, they supported me, but I think the biggest aspects for me was just my teammates. I had very good senior classmen. They took me in, they stayed with me after practice to walk over gameplay, to walk over plans, everything, technique.”

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Pepa played in four games during the 2021 season, mostly in reserve action, and didn’t register any stats.

Last year, however, he saw the field in all 14 games, and he made the most of his playing time, earning a spot on The AP Pac-12 All-Conference first team.

He registered 27 tackles, four sacks and two pass deflections. He ramped up his production in November, totaling those four sacks against Stanford, Oregon and USC.

“After I got a couple games under my belt, it just became more natural. Instead of it feeling like a dream, it just became reality,” Pepa said.

“I just was able to finally be comfortable on the field and just to be able to make plays, be able to understand what I’m doing to trust my skills and the coaching that we received and everything kind of just unlocked from there and I was able to slow the game down for myself.”

Adding to that surreal feeling was playing right alongside his best friend, defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, who committed to Utah alongside him in 2019 at Bingham.

“Ever since we were little kids, we always just grew up playing together, playing with the old spy gear. ... It just started when we were like 3, 4 years old. Just started since then, and ever since then we’ve played basketball, football, every sport together, all the way up to now.”

Heading into what could be a pivotal sophomore season, Pepa seems likely to see significant playing time. He’s been in the weight room and has done speed training, and has also been hard at work breaking down film, constantly trying to expand his knowledge of the game.

Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 330 pounds, Pepa has unique agility at his size.

“He just has a feel for the ball. He always seems to be at the ball, and then he has this don’t-quit attitude and even though he’s our heaviest defensive tackle, he’s still sprinting down the field, sprinting lateral, doing some things agility-wise that you wouldn’t expect from such a guy with his size,” defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss said.

The biggest thing Pepa needs to improve on going into the season is consistency, according to defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley.

“He’ll flash, he’ll show strength, he’ll do some things and then some plays off,” Scalley said. “So for us it’s been consistency and that’s throughout the defensive tackle position room is just, we got to be able to know you’re going to be that guy every day.

“So that’s what I would say, physically he can do it and he knows the defense, it’s just the ability to show up every day and be consistent.” 

Elliss says Pepa needs to be more consistent with his pad level and hand technique, but that he has seen a massive improvement on both during fall camp.

When Pepa plays at his highest level, he can elevate Utah’s defense.

“When his hands are tight and strike the target that we’re trying to hit,” Elliss said, “there’s not too many people that are going to move him and or block him.”

Arizona running back DJ Williams is tackled by Utah defensive tackle Simote Pepa during game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press