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Utah football: Salesi Uhatafe will be leaned on to set tone for revamped offensive line

Published July 31, 2017 8:49 pm

Utah football • After 25 career starts at guard, senior will move to right tackle.
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With cameras fixed upon him and tape recorders in front of him during Pac-12 Media Days, University of Utah senior Salesi "Leka" Uhatafe appeared very reserved. Soft-spoken and deliberate, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive lineman listened intently and chose his words carefully.

At the end of the first practice of preseason camp on Friday, Uhatafe showed a looser side. He purposely poked his head in the background of a media scrum, making goofy faces while a teammate took questions from reporters.

Senior quarterback Troy Williams laughed when asked if Uhatafe actually speaks. Williams reveled that the Utes' right tackle apparently is a cut-up in the locker room, saying, "He's soft-spoken, but once he gets inside the facility, we hear him all the time. He's a real fun guy, cracks a lot of jokes."

The mix of laser focus and playfulness combined with a rugged on-field demeanor make Uhatafe a likely leader for an offensive line that must be reshaped after losing four NFL draft picks, including first-round selection Garett Bolles. The Utes' success under coach Kyle Whittingham has been built around controlling the line of scrimmage.

Uhatafe, a three-year starter at right guard, shifts to right tackle this preseason to accommodate highly regarded junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva, who is best suited to play guard.

"He is the best fit at the tackle position," Whittingham said of Uhatafe. "He's a guy that's taken reps at tackle periodically throughout his career at Utah, so it's not foreign to him. Like I said, he played there in high school. He's got the most length, other than Jackson Barton, of any of the candidates, and that's a big thing at tackle. Your wing span, and how you can — you know, your length to ride guys around the edge of the defense."

Uhatafe, a product of Euless, Texas, led all Utes offensive lineman in plays (936) during the 2016 season. He's played in all 39 games during his career with the Utes, and made 25 starts — all at right guard.

"It's been more of a perspective thing for me," Uhatafe said of moving to tackle. "Kind of seeing a different side of the ball, even though it's right next to each other. I think at guard you're kind of in the middle of it. At tackle you're like on the outside perimeter, seeing more behind you and the defense's behind and what they're trying to run outside — the bigger picture of things."

While the Utes' depth chart going into preseason camp has five starters labeled, first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said as many as seven guys have set themselves apart in the group, while others could emerge during camp.

Taylor said there's "no doubt" Uhatafe is a leader among the offensive line — pointing to the respect Uhatafe garners from his teammates.

Taylor's offenses have been known as pass-happy compared with the run-heavy approach the Utes have featured under Whittingham recently. Current Washington quarterback Jake Browning threw for 5,790 yards in a single season as a high school quarterback under Taylor. Last year, Eastern Washington set an FCS record for passing yards in a season (5,160).

Does that heavy pass emphasis mean the Utes offense will sacrifice some of their gritty, smash-mouth identity?

"It think that's just one of those things where you're just going to have to tune in on game day and watch," Uhatafe said.

lworthy@sltrib.com Twitter: @LWorthySports —

Salesi Uhatafe file

Hometown • Euless, Texas

Class • Senior

Size • 6-foot-5, 320 pounds

Position • Right tackle (previously right guard)

Experience • Has played in 39 games for Utah, with 25 starts






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