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March 31, 2013Senior defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi has been handed the keys to the Utah defensive line kingdom after the loss of Star Lotulelei to graduation.
While other returning upperclassmen Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard still man the line, the name that keeps coming up when asking the young defensive linemen who has taken over leadership responsibilities, is Palepoi's.
Palepoi's version differs, however.
"There's not really one, specific leader. Everyone has been speaking up, which is good for us. Everyone wants to lead, and everyone wants to take responsibility for the leadership, so it benefits all of us," he explained.
While big names and impactful players at defensive end have come through the Utah football program, history suggests that it is the interior linemen who have represented the heart of the line, and by extension, the Utah defense.
Despite Palepoi's strong protests, with Lotulelei gone, the torch seems to have passed to the soft-spoken, unassuming, team-first Palepoi - who just happens to be a defensive tackle.
"I don't feel like I'm mentoring anyone because these guys are doing it on their own. I feel like I can be a resource for this group, but these guys are stepping up by themselves. The only thing I'm really doing is leading by example," Palepoi praised his young fellow defensive linemen. "You know, I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing, which is working hard, learning the playbook. I had good mentors in Dave [Kruger] and Star [Lotulelei], so I'm just trying to mimic what they showed as leaders."
Palepoi's comments suggest an extremely mature, self-assured group at defensive line behind Reilly and Orchard, which, if true, could only bode well for the group who has huge shoes to fill and expectations to meet.
"We have a lot of new players and they've jumped right in and they've done a good job. We have a really good tempo and pace so far. The Pac-12 is really fast-paced, so it's good to see us going at this pace so early in spring ball," Palepoi said. "Talent-wise, I think we have just as much talent as we had last year. Talent-wise. But it's mostly a young group and so there is so much for them to learn, so we just have to keep working to get them up to speed."
The high praise is both a blessing and a curse, as last season's defensive line can attest. While last season's line under-achieved, the expectations heading into the season were probably unrealistic, and way too high.
This season, the early claims of big talent stand only to bring further scrutiny, and pressure on the revamped defensive line.
"The talent is there, and like I said, we just have to try to focus as much as we can in spring on getting these guys up to speed. It's about learning and growing." Palepoi explained. "There's so much talent on this front, and maybe with Star gone, people question our talent up front. But we are as talented, if not more talented than we were last season. The players coming in have helped eased the pressure of trying to replace the guys who left."
The difference between last season's group and this season's group is that the pressure and expectations are coming from the inside, rather than externally from fans and media.
The difference between the two kinds of expectations are huge; typically the latter results in a no-win situation, where the former usually results in an under-dog, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, which has served the Utes well throughout their history.
The biggest problem of all is that the line between the two is very thin, and the side on which one resides makes all the difference.