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Utah football: Why lone returning starter on defensive line ‘has what it takes to play at the next level’

Although just a junior, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes Mika Tafua is “an NFL guy”

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Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua celebrates after sacking Colorado quarterback Steven Montez during game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. As the lone returning starter on the Utes’ defensive line, big things are expected of Tafua in 2020.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Three will eventually become four and that would make it 100% for Utah’s starting defensive line in 2019. 

That’s what Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says about the guys who did the work up front on a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense (269.2 ypg), third in rush defense (81.8 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (15 ppg) last season.

Seniors Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini went on to be drafted by the NFL. Fotu went to the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth round; Anae was taken by the Dallas Cowboys in the fifth; and the Detroit Lions picked Penisini in the sixth.

Eventually, Whittingham predicts, the fourth starter on that line will join them. Defensive end Mika Tafua, who is back with the Utes, is progressing in that direction. He was tied for second in the nation with four fumble recoveries as a sophomore. Now he’s a veteran, joining linebacker Devin Lloyd as the only returning starters for the Utah defense.

“He is an NFL guy in my opinion,” Whittingham said. “He is just a junior, but he has what it takes to play at the next level.” 

Tafua, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound force from Laie, Hawaii, earned honorable mention all-conference honors from the Pac-12 after making 47 tackles (8.5 for loss with three sacks) on a Utah team that repeated as South Division champions. He has played in 25 games during the past two seasons — doing so after joining the Utes and redshirting following a two-year church mission to Tacoma, Washington. Tafua originally signed with BYU.

“He is a great leader for us. He was voted captain, so that is what his peers think of him and how much respect he has from them,” said Whittingham, who added that Tafua has been a tremendous player since arriving at Utah. “Right now, he is the leader of that defensive line.”

It’s a role Tafua readily accepts. While acknowledging it was fun playing alongside Anae, Fotu and Penisini, he credits their NFL success to the work ethic they had in college — the same goes for other former Utah defenders in the pros like Julian Blackmon, Jaylon Johnson and Francis Bernard.

Tafua sees a carryover and noted he and Lloyd are working hard to keep things going.

“There are a lot of young guys, but I feel that we’ve done a pretty good job at recruiting people who want to get better,” Tafua said. “All the young guys want to get better. So we’re just trying to set an example and show them what the culture here on defense is at Utah.”

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley does a great job making sure the culture is for everyone, Tafua continued, and it’s already kind of built into the system.

Scalley is projecting a bright future up front with several guys like Maxs Tupai, Viane Moala and Hauati Pututau bringing some experience to what will likely be expanded roles. They gained significant reps last season for the Utes.

“The biggest thing we lost with the three (linemen) that went to the NFL is leadership. All three of those guys made plays for us and there is a reason all three are playing in the league right now,” Scalley said. “They are very good football players. We feel like we have a solid group both of young athletes coming into our program as well as returners.”

The line, he emphasized, is probably the most experienced group on a defense replacing nine starters. Scalley said the leadership is coming through and the staff is excited for the group.

“It is their time,” he summarized.

Utah’s defensive line has reloaded over time, maintaining a high level of play. Whittingham doesn’t see that changing in 2020.

“We feel like year-in and year-out our defensive front is going to continue to be a strength of ours. It has been for many years,” he said. “We very seldom have a year where our defensive front isn’t dominating and we expect that to happen this year.”

“We feel like year-in and year-out our defensive front is going to continue to be a strength of ours. It has been for many years.” — Kyle Whittingham

While projecting what could be another strong group, Whittingham predicts that Moala is going to be one of the best defensive tackles in the Pac-12. Seniors Pututau and Pita Tonga will also be factors. So, too, could be sophomore Blake Kuithe as well as freshmen Xavier Carlton, Van Fillinger and Tanoa Togiai. 

“I think the most important thing is that everybody gets the culture here, especially with the defensive line — just helping them understand what is expected of them and helping them get the confidence to be able to do what is asked,” said Tafua, who emphasized the importance of helping the younger guys step up.

In addition, Tafua explained he’s trying to work on all aspects of his game. Potentially bad news for opposing offenses.

“I’d say one spot that I’ve tried to focus on a lot is on my pass rush,” Tafua said. “I feel like last year I definitely could have done a better job at getting more pressure on the quarterback. So that is something I’ve worked on.”