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October 17, 2013Over the last twenty years, the University of Utah defense has been known for their physicality and toughness. They have stood toe to toe with some of the best talent around, intimidated them, and thrown them off of their game. Leading that charge has always been an imposing defensive line. The 2013 version for the Utes is no different.
The end of the 2012 season saw the graduation of one of the most dominant players to strap on the drum and feather in first round NFL draft choice Star Lotulelei. Utah also lost the reliable Kruger brothers and their defensive line coach.
After so many key losses, many people would reasonably expect for the production to go down, but it has been the exact opposite. From 2011-2012 you could actually say that the defensive underperformed-with the exception being Lotulelei. The 2013 defensive line rotation is actually averaging nearly a sack and a tackle for loss more (6.67 TFL/game 3.33 sacks/game) than either of the previous two seasons.
Is it the added depth, more experience, good health, or a new coach? You could argue for all of those.
"I think a healthy Trevor Reilly really helps our cause, and Nate Orchard being a year older and stronger and smarter. He's a much better player this year-Tenny Palepoi, the same situation," claimed Utah Head Coach Kyle Whittingham.
In addition to the three players stepping up their games, senior captain and defensive line leader Tenny Palepoi, has noticed a very different coaching approach this year under Ilaisa Tuiaki.
"Both coaching styles were very different. Coach Chad (Kauha'aha'a) was the rah-rah type and Coach Tuiaki's more like the calm, you know, he doesn't yell too much, but they both wanted us to get the job done."
Tuiaki is known for his attention to details no matter the position he is coaching and his work has been evident this year as several guys are more polished, creating solid depth and an advantageous rotation.
Palepoi believes that the defensive line's biggest improvement is the talent that the Utes have at every position. "It's our depth. We developed over spring ball and through fall camp with our depth, (and now we're) getting the twos and threes involved in most of the games and it's really helped us so far this season," said Palepoi.
One thing that this year's defense has been lacking is interceptions from the secondary, but the defensive front has found ways to make up for that in order to give the offense more opportunities. Tuiaki's tutelage of the defensive line - especially when it comes to technique - has been a big reason behind the line's big play ability.
"He's done a nice job, he's done a very nice job," said Whittingham in regards to his new defensive line coach. "You know, the thing we're not doing is intercepting the ball on defense, but what we are doing is getting good pressure on the quarterback with the front and getting a bunch of fumbles, and the defensive line has been a huge part of that."
Whittingham is also quick to note Tuiaki's work with the younger players in the program. "We've had a lot of those young guys step up and do some good things. Hunter Dimick is doing a nice job, so I think it's just a combination of things. I think Coach Tuiaki doing a nice job working with those guys," he said.
Tuiaki was a defensive graduate assistant with the Utes during their Sugar Bowl run in 2008, working with the outside linebackers. This year is his second season with the team in a full time assistant role, but his first with the defense. When Kauha'aha'a left for Wisconsin, Utah Defensive Coordinator Kalani Sitake knew he had the perfect replacement.
Tuiaki and Sitake have a long history together, as their younger brothers were best friends growing up. "So I've known the type of person he is and the type of hard worker he is," claimed Sitake. "(I knew) the transition from moving from the offensive side to the defense wouldn't be a problem with him, plus he was a graduate assistant of ours and he worked for me, he worked with the outside linebackers."
So far the results of Tuikaki's move to defense have been extremely positive. "One thing he's been really good at-he's been able to coach those guys and teach them how to maximize their talents and also really focus their technique at their positions," said Sitake.
Constantly perfecting technique will improve upon weaknesses, and that has been evident with a group of guys that showed talent coming into this season, but many of them were raw. "I think when you work on all that stuff and you have a coach that's willing to work on their weaknesses and make them become strengths, you're going to have success and that's what Coach Tuiaki has been doing," explained Sitake.
While a lot of the defensive line's success can be traced back to Tuiaki, he is quick to deflect any praise thrown his way.
"It's been great, all the credit goes to the kids, the schemes have been awesome, Coach Sitake's done a great job scheming those defenses and putting kids in position (to succeed)," claimed Tuiaki. "(The kids) have bought in. They've been playing really, really hard and with passion, so for me as a coach it's been easy teaching a group of kids like that. These guys are just really, really good, they want it, they're hungry."
When asked about his biggest surprise on the line, Tuiaki could not just name one. He is pleasantly surprised with several players' performances.
"Tenny's playing really well and we kind of expected him to fill that role when we lost Star last year and the Kruger brothers. He's done a good job. I think all of them have been improving in their own way. I think LT (Tuipulotu) has stuck out as a guy who's done a good job. He hasn't really played the last couple of years, so he's bought in and is doing a good job. Nate (Orchard) and Trevor (Reilly) have shown up for us in a big way these last couple weeks, so I'm excited to see what (the whole line) can do the rest of the year," explained Tuiaki.
For as good as they have been, there is still plenty of progress that can be made with the defensive line, but Tuiaki is happy with their effort and production. "I've loved how tough and physical the d-line has played this whole year," he said. "We haven't always been perfect, but we've got a good group of kids that have bought into what we're doing, (we've got) a good group of leaders. Really I'm just fortunate to be a part of a group like this, it's been real fun."
Palepoi's goal for the line the rest of the year is simple. "Just keep this 'get after it' mentality. The past few games we've really developed (into) that d-line that Utah's been known for and it's nice to see," he claimed. "We've got really good edge rushers in Trevor and Nate, and we have really stout interior guys, so we just have to keep this going for the rest of the season."
With the promising young coach at the helm, the sky is the limit for the Utes' defensive line as they perfect the basics of the position.
"I think that Coach Tuiaki is one of the best at motivating his guys and also being able to teach the fundamental of technique," said Sitake.
That is bad news for the rest of the Pac-12 as twenty plus years of physical and intimidating defensive line play continues to live on under the guidance of Tuiaki. The on-field results prove that in Tuiaki, Utah has one of the best young coaches in the country.