New defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a came into the Utah program and inherited a position group whose cupboard was fully stocked with talent, depth and experience.
One could easily expect smooth sailing in 2011 for Kauha'aha'a and his unit, after all the defensive line returns two starters and all their backups from last season, and gets Lei Talamaivao and Joape Pela back from injury.
If that weren't enough, former JUCO transfers Star Lotulelei and Tevita Finau have fully acclimated with a year in the program and the benefit of a full off-season of conditioning with the team.
Article Continues Below
On face value, it was a pretty sunny outlook for Kauha'aha'a coming in. Not so for Kahua'aha'a, who was brought in to the program for a very specific reason. Despite having been a strength of the defense, and the team, the general feeling around the program was that there was simply not enough pressure on the quarterback. The Utah defense starts and ends with quarterback pressure.
Enter Kauha'aha'a, a former Ute defensive lineman in Whittingham's defense in 1993-1996, who provides plenty of familiarity with what is expected of defensive linemen in the program.
"Changing the surface of the line of scrimmage was the whole key for me coming in," said Kauha'aha'a. "The key thing was, which seems to be a concern, the pass rush game. We've put a lot of emphasis on that, getting to the quarterback. Coach Whittingham brought me in for a reason."
So far in camp, the defensive line has combined natural talent and ability with technique, and a concerted focus on details. The results have been impressive to this point.
"These guys now have a good understanding of staying in the pass rush lanes. They're doing their jobs, which is basically being disciplined pass rushers," said Kauha'aha'a'. "It's really showing as we go along, and I'm really pleased with the progress."
More than words, the on-field performance through camp has spoken for itself, as the defensive line is getting to the quarterback or making tackles for loss with regularity. The run defense hasn't been so bad, either.
"I like what we're doing against the run. I'm real pleased with that," said Kauha'aha'a. "We can't just focus on one part of the thing. We've got to control the line of scrimmage, the run game. We have to hold that line and not get so focused on the rush. We've done a really good job of that so far."
Striking a balance between the run and pass games is never easy, but the Utes have somehow managed to get better at both through camp. The team has proved to be as strong in run defense as they are adept at the pass rush and applying pressure.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham praises the defensive line daily in post-practice interviews. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake has also spoken glowingly through both spring and fall camps about the job Kauha'aha'a is doing, as well as the progress of the defensive line.
"I've been really pleased with Chad and his line so far in camp. I think they're doing some good things for us, and we need that from that group," Sitake said mid-camp. "He has us and that line kind of going where we wanted it to be. So I've been impressed there."
Historically, the defensive line has been a strength of the team, and Kauha'aha'a, as a former player understands that perfectly.
"I was brought in here to get these guys going, and to get these guys performing to the level where [Kyle Whittingham] expects it to be," explained Kauha'aha'a. "I'm not only coaching it, but I've played for Coach Whittingham, and he expects a lot. He expects me to get a lot out of these guys, just like he did with me."
With the defensive line as the central character of the defense, Kauha'aha'a understands that his unit's performance is critical, and coaches accordingly.
"Absolutely there is pressure. I'm responsible, so yeah, there is pressure on me," admitted Kauha'aha'a. "But that just pushes me to coach these guys harder, make them learn more about how to be a sound, disciplined defensive lineman. It makes me better, and if I'm better, so are my guys. So I use it. I accept that pressure."
Despite all the positives surrounding the defensive linemen, by no means is Kauha'aha'a satisfied as he continues to push his unit to perfection.
"We have to get better. In every phase of the game, continue to get better. By no means are we where we need to be right now," Kauha'aha'a. "I'll tell you what. We're about where we need to be for where we are in camp, but we are not where we need to be, where we can be in the long run. The ceiling for this group is so high, that we can't just be satisfied to sit back. We won't be, and we're going to continue driving and pushing this thing as far as it can go."