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Utah Defensive Line Ready To Become Stars

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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.

It’s difficult to claim that one player is going to replace Star Lotulelei because he regularly drew double teams in the middle last season. That allowed players like Orchard and Joe Kruger to rush opposing quarterbacks without as much resistance as they normally would get. Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune described his performance against USC as “heroic.” He was a dominant factor even when he wasn’t racking up dominant statistics.

But two might do it. Whittingham has been adamant about how good Palepoi and Ianu are, already ranking them among the best tackles in the Pac-12, though they’ve never started in an NCAA game. Keep in mind that he has also placed two of his quarterbacks (including the 19-year-old Travis Wilson) in the “upper echelon” of the conference, with a third listed as a co-second stringer.

Still, that's why they might, collectively, be able to fill Lotulelei’s production. It’s also why the ninth-year head coach is convinced that the defensive line remains fearsome overall and will maintain Utah’s reputation as a feeder program for NFL defensive lines.

Under Dave Kruger, Palepoi (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) played in every game and started one last season as a junior college transfer. Ianu (6-foot-2, 305 pounds) is a junior who comes to Salt Lake City from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. With them, don’t get confused this fall.

"Sese is just like Tenny. They are almost clones,” Whittingham said on the university website.

One just might have more pressure. Palepoi’s older brother Anton played six years in the NFL after starring at UNLV, a former Mountain West Conference foe for Utah. But Anton has said more than once his little brother has the skill to play at the next level, as Jones wrote. As a senior, Palepoi just has one year to prove it.

The two are as close as siblings can be, products of the same game and the same position. Jones has written that if you venture into 24-Hour Fitness at any given time during the offseason, you can find the two working out together with a third brother, Daniel, putting in his time as well.

At least Palepoi will benefit from personal contacts. Line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki nearly recruited him to play for Utah State when it was led by coach Gary Andersen, who will start with Wisconsin this fall.

“I remember it was hard getting the phone call from him telling me he was going to Utah," Tuiaki told Jones. "Now I'm glad I didn't get him. He's been a leader, and that's a big thing for us. He's going to have a huge role going forward."

 Still, Whittingham said that along with the recruiting class that will be seen in August, the line could be better than the one that had three pros.

"Our tackles have probably been the most improved group of spring," Whittingham told the Tribune’s Lya Wodraska. "We've been fortunate to have a long run of talent on the defensive front and this year appears to be no different.”

So talented, in fact, that there was some chatter about the team adjusting to a 3-4, according to BlockU.com’s JazzyUte. But that would have been a major shift for the program since Whittingham has essentially run the same defense (4-3) since becoming Utah’s defensive coordinator in 1995.