SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham readily acknowledges that the Utes have some “huge holes” to fill on defense. Eight starters from 2019 are headed to the NFL Scouting Combine and one other is graduating.

“It’s a rebuild,” Whittingham said. “The whole defense.”

Besides having to replace the entire secondary and name a new starting linebacker, there are some big vacancies up front. All-Americans Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu have completed their eligibility, as has all-conference honoree John Penisini.

The loss of Anae, Fotu and Penisini leaves a combined void of 86 tackles, 29 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 16.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

“It’s a rebuild. The whole defense.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

Utah’s defensive line was one of the best in the nation last season, particularly against the run. The Utes ranked third nationally giving up 81.8 yards per game.

“Are we going to be the third or fourth best like we were last year? That’s a tough statement to make,” Whittingham said. “But we think in time this is going to be a pretty good group.”           

While noting it’ll be challenging for defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and the coaches, Whittingham said the situation will provide an opportunity for a lot of new faces.

At defensive end, though, there is some returning experience. Starter Mika Tafua (47 tackles) is back for his junior season and top reserve Maxs Tupai (21 tackles) will be a senior.

Utah Utes defensive end Maxs Tupai (92) runs down Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Aleva Hifo (15) as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Tafua, who had 8.5 tackles for loss last season, is the stalwart coming back. However, the Utes have several up-and-coming defensive ends in the program as well.

Whittingham noted that freshman Miki Suguturaga got some playing time in four games to maintain his redshirt status. He’s expected to be better because of it.

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Another player with a lot of promise is redshirt freshman Blake Kuithe, who has battled injuries since joining the program with his twin brother Brant in 2018.

“Interesting guy. If he can stay healthy he is a heck of a player,” Whittingham said. “What Brant is to the offense, he can be to the defense.”

Blake, he continued, has just had bad luck with injuries.

Although Whittingham admits there may be a learning curve, the Utes are very high on a trio of true freshmen — Xavier Carlton (Juan Diego HS), Van Fillinger (Corner Canyon HS) and Tyler Wegis (San Juan Hills HS, California).

Corner Canyon High School athletes Van Fillinger, right, and Josh Wilson smile as they sign their National Letters of Intent in Draper, Utah, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Fillinger signed with Utah and Wilson signed with BYU. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We think that’s the future of the d-line, all those young guys,” Whittingham said.  

Three seniors — Viane Moala, Hauati Pututau and Pita Tonga will help man the interior. Whittingham predicts that Moala, a 6-foot-6, 315-pound transfer from Hawaii who joined the Utes in 2018, will probably be the headliner at tackles.  

“A lot of the scouts that came through here say next year he’s going to be the best D-tackle in the Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “They watched him practice. He just happened to be behind Leki and John.”

The Utes are also very high on redshirt freshman Semisi Lauaki. The former California prep star (Leuzinger HS) joined the program at 245 pounds and has since bulked his 6-foot-3 frame up to 305 pounds. Whittingham said Lauaki is “as quick as a cat” and they really like him.

Returned missionaries Tennessee Pututau (East HS) and Aliki Vimahi (Kahuku HS, Hawaii) also drew praise, as did recent defensive line signees Keanu Tanuvasa (Mission Viejo HS, California) and Tanoa Togiai (Rigby HS, Idaho).