For the second year in a row, the Utes must replace an NFL-caliber defensive end. A year ago, Paul Kruger left early for the NFL, and in his absence the Utes faired well on the defensive line, even with a new position coach and injuries to key players. Now the Utes must pull the same trick again with Koa Misi graduating and expected to go high in the draft. Utah must also replace Kenape Eliapo at defensive tackle, though he missed much of 2009 due to injury.
Defensive line coach John Pease feels his young players are more ready for the challenge this time around. "They're making the next step in the progression," Pease said.
The Utes did have trouble stopping the run in 2009 as opponents ran for 138 yards per game, up from 99 yards per game in 2008. Improving the run defense up front is going to be a big part of spring practices, though part of the issue was getting used to a new line coach. "I was new for them last year and they had to get used to my terminology and everything." With both coach and players having a year together, the Utes should be more technically sound up front.
"We need to really solidify the technical part of the run game, take the next step technically, and improve our pass rush," Pease said. "When we play teams like Colorado State and Louisville played us where they were keeping seven men in to block, we need to beat them and every one-on-one we get. We don't need to always sack the quarterback, but we need to make him uncomfortable, don't give them time to take that one extra step to get that 25-yard pass in. Make them get the ball out, and eventually make a mistake. So improving technically in the run game and improving our pass rush, I think those are two big, big factors we can improve in the spring."
Utah will play with a bit more size up front in 2010, and spring will be an ideal time to prove that adding size will not decrease the speed and quickness that allowed the Utes to record 19 sacks with defensive linemen and 30 sacks overall in 2009 - up from 15 and 29 in 2008. Promising end Derrick Shelby will miss spring practices while recovering from knee surgery and his recovery for fall will be a welcome addition to the defensive line. Shelby was playing well before his injury and can play the run and pass equally well.
Lei Talamaivao will start spring out moving from tackle to end, where he played periodically as a freshman in 2007. Talamaivao has good quickness and an explosive first step for his size which could help him generate a pass rush from the outside.
JC transfer James Aiono played defensive end in high school and at Snow College, but he will make the transition to defensive tackle for the Utes. Aiono has dropped some weight and will play at 290 pounds. Aiono still has the speed and quickness to play defensive end and may get some looks there after learning to play tackle in the spring. "Aiono was an end at Snow and I haven't seen him on our field, but the kid is a football playing machine," Pease said.
Junior Tui'one really impressed the coaches with his play a year ago and will get the nod at left end for Shelby in the spring. Tui'one is another player that can play inside or out for the Utes, though his speed and athleticism are more valuable on the outside. "He's come along, he's hit the weight room," Pease said. "He's really strong and fast and I think he will have a great year."
Another hybrid player that can play inside or out is Dave Kruger. Kruger will play mainly inside at tackle and played exceptional football as the season went on. Kruger made strides last summer after a rough spring and stepped up when Eliapo went down with injuries. "[Going into the season] we thought Kruger was going to be a 10 play, 15 play guy but he went in and played really well for us," Pease said. "The thing about Kruger is he will play every down for you." Kruger has added a bit more size and strength and will be counted on to continue playing at a high level.
With those four hybrid players, the Utes have the ability to play many combinations and schemes up front, and the possibilities excite Pease. "What it does is it lets us use some multiple fronts," Pease said. "We're not afraid to slide the line and play a 3-4 look like we did last year where we dropped Koa off. When you go from a 4-man look to an odd look where you've got someone over the center, offensive line coaches go crazy, it's like a fire alarm in a fire station. It changes protections, it changes run schemes, it changes the game for the offense. When you go back to the Sugar Bowl, Alabama didn't know how to block our odd front, which in unbelievable because they had an NFL offensive line coach coaching them, but just by us moving one man and dropping a guy off, we tore them up."
The rest of the defensive linemen have more set roles, and each has something to prove in spring practices.
Sealver Siliga grew into his role as a starting tackle as the year went on, and needs to play at that same level each game, each day. Siliga has enormous potential and showed flashes of greatness in 2009, especially in the bowl game against Cal where he recorded six tackles, a tackle for loss, and a sack. The next step for Siliga is to get more technically sound and play at a consistent level.
Latu Heimuli arrived on campus with a lot of hype, picking Utah over schools such as Florida, UCLA, and Nebraska. Heimuli was off to a good start in the fall before injuring his foot in camp and missing the entire season. Getting on the field and getting reps are what Heimuli needs most after spending over six months off the practice field. "He needs reps, he needs to get in there," Pease said of his four-star tackle. "I know, I love all those rankings and all the stars and stuff, but if you don't practice, you're not going to get it because it's not high school football anymore. He needs a lot of work to get up with the technical part of the game."
Joape Pela was a late transfer to the program last fall from Foothill junior college and is an unknown commodity. Pela looked good in practices but unfortunately came down with pneumonia in the off-season and needs to show he is fully recovered and ready to go. "He's very athletic and getting in shape," Pease said. "He'll be in the mix, in the fight for playing time. It's going to be a war in there for starting and playing time."
Neli A'asa moved back to defensive tackle for his senior season and dropped some weight to take pressure off his knees. A'asa has something to prove and could be a darkhorse candidate for playing time when all is said and done. A'asa has battled injuries as well as position changes in his Utah career, starting out as a defensive tackle before moving to offensive line, tight end, back to the offensive line and finally returning to the defensive side of the football. "His knees have been holding up really well," Pease said. "We're hoping he can contribute."
At end, the Utes return Christian Cox, who led the team in sacks a year ago. The walk-on end may not be the best athlete on the roster but has solid technique and a motor that will not stop. Cox needs to get bigger, stronger, and faster, and needs to prove he can play the run as well as rush the passer.
Trevor Reilly redshirted last fall but quickly got the attention of the staff with his play on the scout team. Reilly was virtually impossible to block off the edge with his speed and quick first step, and carried that over into bowl practice. Reilly needs to add size and strength while retaining his quickness and continue to play well in practices. A strong spring for Reilly could make fall camp interesting at end. "You look at some of our guys that worked out with the offensive scout team, and you see Trevor Reilly run right past people and raise hell with them," Pease said. "It may not be exactly what we do [with the Utah defense] but you see skills."
Eric Dago has a lot to prove as well. The pass rush specialist from Texas came to Utah a year ago extremely undersized at just over 200 pounds. Dago has added some size and is now up to 230 pounds but still needs to add size and strength. "Eric Dago is still real thin, still light, so it might be a year for Eric, but it's kind of like the Kruger deal with Dago." Pease said. "I mean, you saw Kruger last spring, kind of going 'who recruited this kid?' But then he got used to what we were doing and played well."
Utah's defensive line has much to prove in the spring and a great deal to work on, but the players are up to the challenge and have been working hard in the weight room and film room preparing to start the 2010 season. Pease would like to come out of the spring with a solid start to his defensive rotation for the upcoming season. "I would like to have three "starters" - guys that are pretty equal - three "starters" at end and three at tackle," Pease said. "That would be guys where we don't drop off at all, and then I would like one more at each position." The fight for positioning and playing time on the defensive line will be one to watch closely throughout spring practices.
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