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Utah’s ‘other’ defensive lineman starting to make a name for himself

Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) runs out of the pile with a recovered fumble giving the Utes possession in BYU territory during the second half of the Utah-BYU game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) runs out of the pile with a recovered fumble giving the Utes possession in BYU territory during the second half of the Utah-BYU game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah defensive line has been heralded as one of the best D-lines in college football with a pair of all-American candidates in Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, both first-team all-Pac-12 selections last year, as well as tackle John Penisini, who earned second-team all-Pac-12 honors in 2018.

Then there’s that other guy, what’s his name?

That would be Mika Tafua, a 6-foot-3, 252-pound sophomore who plays the left end in Utah’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment.

Ask Tafua if he feels overlooked or dissed by the lack of attention he receives and the soft-spoken big man replies, “No not at all, I just do my job. It’s not me. It doesn’t define me, but it’s something I want to do well at.”

Tafua has done well so far as he leads his fellow defensive linemen in tackles with six so far this season, and he also had a sack and a fumble recovery, both in the BYU game.

“Mika’s an outstanding player,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s a little bit under the radar and doesn’t get the attention that the other guys get, but he’s playing excellent football for us.”

How he ended up at Utah is a story Tafua calls “interesting” as he was hardly recruited by the Utes out of high school.

He was a first-team all-state selection at Kamehameha High School in Hawaii in 2014 and signed a letter of intent with BYU. He then went on a church mission to Tacoma, Washington.

Soon after he returned from his mission back in early September of 2017, Tafua was standing on the sidelines at the annual Utah-BYU game when he saw Utah assistant coach Lewis Powell. He knew Powell from Hawaii, where Powell coached the University of Hawaii defensive line for three years before moving to Utah.

Tafua, who was basically a “free agent” at this point, decided to check out the program at Utah and was impressed enough that he decided to enroll at the U. and sat out the 2017 season as a redshirt.

“I’ve known him for awhile,” said Powell. “He was going to head to BYU and came here and fell in love with our staff and program and what we’re trying to do. Shoot, it didn’t take much, but we’re excited to have him. He’s going to continue to get better.”

“I had a lot of family here in Utah, so it was pretty easy,” Tafua said of his transition.

It didn’t take long the following autumn for Tafua to claim a starting spot at the right end position on the Ute defensive line. After the third game, he switched with Anae and went to the left side. He had to miss three games with injuries but ended up starting seven games and finishing the season with 23 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.

“Oh man he’s doing really good,” said Powell, who coaches the defensive ends. “People are game-planning for Brad and all of a sudden Mika starts making plays and that’s what we need from him. Mika’s still young, just a sophomore, but he was a starter last year and he’s continuing to get better as he understands where he fits in and what we’re trying to do.”

The Utah depth chart actually has Tafua and junior Maxs Tupai as co-starters and while Powell said the Utes try to split the reps, Tafua has been getting the majority of the time this year.

“Maxs has been getting the shorter end of that, but we like both of them to play,” Powell said. “They bring different things to the table. They’re both really good, and we’re excited for both of them.”

Whittingham praises Tafua’s “consistency” and believes his time in the spotlight is coming.

“He’s really has no weakness,” Whittingham said. “He plays the run well, he’s a good pass rusher and has a good motor. His entire game is his strong suit because there really is no weakness. He’s got two more years after this and his time will come in the headlines.”