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Utah has ingredients to field Pac-12's top defensive line

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

By JOHN COON

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah's defensive dominance in the trenches has its roots in the fierce competition among the Utes' linemen.

This is a position group filled with players who do their best to one-up their teammates in practices, workouts, and even games. Who can lift the most weight? Who can create the most pressure on the quarterback?

"To me, it's just hard work," defensive tackle Leki Fotu said. "If you put in the work and get the right group of guys to work with, and the right coaches, everything else will fall into place."

Everything seems likely to fall into place this season for Utah's defensive line, which will probably rank among the nation's best once again.

The 14th-ranked Utes return their entire two-deep front from last season, including Fotu and defensive end Bradlee Anae, who both graded well enough to project as early round picks in the 2019 NFL draft. John Penisini, the other starting tackle, also showed up on the radar for multiple NFL teams after a strong junior season.

All three chose to return to Utah and delay a potential pro career for one more year.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged it's a calculated risk for players to withdraw from the draft after receiving favorable projections. Still, he feels Anae, Fotu, and Penisini will benefit from another season in the Utes' program.

"They all made the right decision coming back," Whittingham said. "Just because you're going to get drafted doesn't mean you go out."

It's a decision that could pay dividends - and a key reason why the Utes were a preseason pick to win the Pac-12 championship. Utah allowed just 100.3 yards rushing per game last season. The Utes also held seven opponents under 100 total rushing yards and went 5-2 in those games.

The Utes' ability to stop the run helped elevate the defense overall. Utah finished the 2018 season ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) and total defense (315.6 yards per game). They trailed only league champion Washington in both categories.

Utah rode that imposing defense, and an improved offense, to the school's first Pac-12 South title. But back-to-back losses to the Huskies and Northwestern left the Utes feeling like they fell short. That also served as motivation for Anae, Fotu and Penisini to return so they could make one final run at a title as seniors.

"We were all itching to come back," said Anae, who led the Pac-12 with eight sacks last season. "It wasn't too hard for us to decide to come back."

Big things are expected from Anae and his teammates on the line.

Utah stopped runners at or behind the line of scrimmage on 28% of their opponents' non-sack rushing attempts to lead the Pac-12 and rank second overall among FBS teams.

Utah's size and strength up front also helped give the linebackers and the secondary an opportunity to make big plays and give the pass defense some extra bite. With the Utes breaking in new starters at linebacker this season, it will fall on the line to set the right tone while those players get comfortable in their new roles.

"We go after it every day," Anae said. "We're just trying to be the most consistent group. There's a lot of hype around us, but we need to be consistent this season."

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Updated August 27, 2019

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