SALT LAKE CITY — John Penisini isn’t the most well-known contributor on Utah’s much heralded defensive line — and that’s saying something.

Despite accolades to the contrary, the senior tackle resides in relative anonymity working alongside Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu. All three received all-conference honors from the Pac-12 last season. Anae and Fotu earned first-team recognition, while Penisini made the second team. 

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham considers Penisini “underrated” and thinks the West Jordan product is right there with Anae and Fotu when it comes to making an impact.

 “He doesn’t quite have the attention and the accolades that those other guys have got but he is a tremendous player. One of the best defensive tackles in the country,” Whittingham said. “You would be hard-pressed to find a better set of D-tackles than what we’ve got here.”

Besides Penisini and Fotu on the interior, Whittingham noted Anae and Mika Tafua on the ends.

“That’s my guy right there. John is one of the, if not the, most important part on our defense. He doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, which I think is really funny how the media doesn’t really pay attention to him. Because he is one of our top returners coming back on defense.” — Utah’s Leki Fotu, on John Penisini

“But back to John, he’s kind of an under-the-radar guy, a little bit of an unsung hero,” Whittingham said. “But he is a huge part of our defense and last year he just played outstanding all year long.”

As a junior, Penisini played in all 14 games and made 38 tackles — second-most on the defensive line.

“That’s my guy right there,” Fotu said. “John is one of the, if not the, most important part on our defense. He doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, which I think is really funny how the media doesn’t really pay attention to him. Because he is one of our top returners coming back on defense.”

Fotu believes Penisini is an NFL talent and expects him to shock people with his play this season.

Anae also has good things to say about Penisini.

 “I want John to have the same recognition as me and Leki because the guy is a hard worker,” Anae said. “He hustles to the ball every play. There’s not one play where he takes off. He’s built like a brick house.”

 So much so, that Anae teases Penisini about being built like a barn. 

“He’s a solid asset for the D-line,” Anae said.

At 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, Penisini is a force up front for the Utes. In 26 games since transferring from Snow College, he’s made 42 tackles and eight stops for loss including three sacks.  

Defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha said the perceived shadow that Penisini may reside in is relative according to who you ask..

“To us, he’s such an integral part of this team as a whole, the leadership that he provides,” said Po’uha, who expounded on how valuable Penisini is to the Utes. His focus is on the task at hand.

“That’s what makes him special. He takes care of the day. He tries to conquer and control the controllables,” Po’uha continued. “He maximizes his abilities. He maximizes his tools and the resources that are around him to become the best player that he can.”

Penisini’s strengths, Po’uha summarized, include reaching for greatness.

“That’s one of the many things I admire about him.”

As for not getting the same recognition that Anae and Fotu may get, Po’uha said Penisini doesn’t care. At the same time, Po’uha said the other guys may be chasing him. 

“And that’s the good thing about those three. They chase each other in one shape or form,” Po’uha explained. “Each of them have a certain trait that they have as a strength and each of them try to strengthen their own bonds by chasing whoever’s strength that is.”

“We’re all brothers and we all put in the same amount of work, do the same amount of things and just have different skill sets and so that doesn’t really bother me.” — Utah defensive tackle John Penisini

For example, if one of the guys is strong in the film room and with the X’s and O’s, the others work hard to measure up and reach the standard. They sharpen each other in that way. As such, Po’uha doesn’t believe any of them walk in someone else’s shadow. They walk together as one.

Penisini admits he doesn’t worry about who gets recognition.

 “We’re all brothers and we all put in the same amount of work, do the same amount of things and just have different skill sets and so that doesn’t really bother me,” he said.

 However, Penisini acknowledged it means a lot that Whittingham said he’s right there with talents like Anae and Fotu. He considers it an honor.

 Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said Penisini may be the hardest worker on the team.

“It starts in the meeting rooms. We talk a lot about not just football but life in general — just the reason why we’re playing football and the reason why I do it is for my family,” Penisini said. “So that’s why I have that drive.”

 Penisini, who emphasized that playing for the Utes and being successful at it is a dream come true, would eventually like to play in the NFL. Any team, he added, would be great.

At Utah, Penisini said the long-term goal is to end up as champion. In the meantime, though, it’s about working on stuff here and there to get better — just doing everything right.

“All those little things will add up to our main goal,” Penisini said.

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