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Does Utah have the nation's best defensive line?

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Utah’s high expectations extend beyond being picked to win the Pac-12 championship. The Utes, who topped the conference’s preseason media poll, have a position of great strength in their defensive line.

So much so, in fact, that college football guru Phil Steele rates the Utes' defensive line as the best in the nation. He noted that Utah’s defensive line “goes 11 deep and has six or seven NFL-caliber linemen.”

At the head of the group is left end Bradlee Anae and right tackle Leki Fotu. The seniors are All-America candidates after earning first-team all-conference recognition in 2018. Senior left tackle John Penisini was a second-team selection last season and joined Anae and Fotu on the Pac-12’s preseason all-conference squad.

The representation headlines a deep position group that also includes right ends Maxs Tupai and Mika Tafua. The junior and sophomore both have starting experience.

Having all four starters back is an obvious plus. So, too, is having projected reserves like junior left tackle Hauati Pututau, junior right tackle Viane Moala and freshman left end Semisi Lauaki in the mix. All are listed on the team’s preseason depth chart.

“Are we the best defensive line in the country? We’ll find out. A lot of expectations are on this team and a lot of hype around the defensive line. Phil Steele, he thinks we’re the best,” said Anae, who led the Pac-12 with eight sacks last season. “If you were to ask me, I think we’re the best. If you’re a player and you don’t think you’re the best then you need to have some re-evaluation.”

Anae added that all the guys want to be the best.

“We try to operate and develop habits to be the most successful at our position — whether it’s technically, offseason workouts, whatnot,” he said. “We try to approach it differently with our intentions, approach every workout like you want to be the best. Not being stagnant. That’s something we all talk about and try to approach.”

Such was the case during the offseason. Anae said things they want to do translate and manifest in games. He noted that defensive line coaches Lewis Powell and Sione Po’uha have been instrumental in developing the mindset.

Like Anae, Fotu also believes that Utah’s defensive line may be the best in the nation. However, he acknowledged there’s still work to do.

Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu brings down Weber State quarterback Kaden Jenks in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.
Utah Utes defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) brings down Weber State Wildcats quarterback Kaden Jenks (11) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Nothing’s proven yet until the season starts. We’ll see by the end of the season where we stand at,” Fotu said. “To me, I believe that we’re one of the best in the country right now.”

Utah’s defensive line is a competitive group. Fotu said they get after each other in drills, lifting and anything for that matter.

“But at the end of the day, we know why we’re doing that and it’s to win games and see how far we can go as individuals,” he explained. “It’s always fun competing with everybody on the D-line and our offense. It only makes us better to help out each other in areas that we need help at.”

Fotu emphasized that the competition is always fun and it helps the position group a lot.

Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae looks to sack Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello on . Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae looks to sack Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello on . Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham likes what he sees. He said “we’ll find out” if the Utes have the best defensive line in the nation.

“We’ve got a chance to be. We’ve got three seniors that are tremendously talented in John Penisini, Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae,” he said. “We’ve got six or seven underclassmen to surround those guys with (including) Maxs Tupai, Mika Tafua. We’ve got some really talented kids.”

The bottom line?

“Let me put it this way: They’ll be as good as they want to be,” Whittingham said.