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Take it from one of the guys who has to block Utah's defensive linemen every day: It ain't easy.
Salesi Uhatafe, a rising senior and the most experienced returner on Utah's "O-Block," finds himself having to be ready for anything in practice.
"They're all getting pretty good," he said. "You can't do the same moves twice on those guys. They're always changing up styles and learning new things from the other guys. They're being coached really well."
While defensive line is a perennial strength for Utah, it might be surprising to find that Uhatafe isn't talking about any of the most experienced returners on that unit. Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts aren't yet able to fully participate in practice, each dealing with various injuries or recovery timelines.
While all three are expected back in fall, that's opened the door for the younger crowd on defensive line: Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, Maxs Tupai, Pita Tonga, Chris Hart and others whom the Utes see as having tremendous promise.
Many of them were freshmen last year, coming in with big frames but not much weight. Players such as Anae have changed that: Since arriving from Hawaii at 220 pounds, Anae is up to 260, coach Kyle Whittingham said, and impressing daily in practice.
"He's just getting better and better every day," he said of Anae. "He's a great pass rusher, he's got a good feel for pass rush. He's physical and he's got a great motor."
The group is a part of a class that was heralded when it was signed, and the Utes are hoping that perhaps with some experienced players out, the increased reps will move the younger players' learning curve ahead.
But the young linemen know that Sack Lake City doesn't take care of itself. If Utah hopes to have another good year on defensive line, the players will have to work on it.
"You know you're at a program where defensive ends excel," Anae said. "So you have to take charge."
A "slight edge" to Williams at QB
There's still an even split between established senior Troy Williams and rising sophomore Tyler Huntley at quarterback. While Whittingham was reluctant to say there's been any true separation, when pressed, he'd give an edge to Williams, who started every game last season.
Asked where Williams has stood out, Whittingham cited "a little better completion percentage, a little better decision-making so far." But it's clear that Huntley also has areas where he stands apart, particular when it comes to improvisation.
"Tyler's strength really doesn't show up on the sheet the ability to make a creative play when there's not one there to be made," he said. "When the quarterbacks aren't live, it's really tough to get a full feel for the impact he can make on a game."
The Utes plan to run at least one live practice this spring, and perhaps two, subjecting their quarterbacks to actual hitting and see how they perform. It likely won't be on Friday afternoon, when Utah hosts its first open scrimmage, but could be next week.
Whittingham said he thought the team took a "step forward" in Tuesday's practice after a so-so prior week which was affected by a "hangover" from spring break and then cold and rainy weather over the weekend. He added that he was impressed so far by how the passers are digesting Troy Taylor's scheme.
The quarterbacks seemed excited about it themselves.
"The scheme that we were running last year wasn't the best, but we tried to make the most of it," Williams said. "The scheme we have this year is real quarterback-friendly, the wide receivers have a lot more opportunities to make plays, and when the pocket breaks down, we're doing a lot better job of scrambling drill and coming back to the ball. I feel I have a lot more to put on the table this year."
The team is hoping for added depth at the running back position, which has been hampered by injury, and Whittingham said he was hopeful Zach Moss could return to practice next week. … Whittingham said he thought the first-string offensive line which includes Jackson Barton, Darrin Paulo, Lo Falemaka, Salesi Uhatafe and Johnny Capra has been working well in practice, but called the depth behind them "a big question mark."
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