SALT LAKE CITY — Rebuilding is not a word in Utah’s vocabulary when it comes to the offensive line. The Utes are brimming with confidence even as they replace four starters from a season ago and have dealt with injuries to a couple of projected starters in fall camp.
Utah locked down a starting five up front as it concluded fall camp Saturday. Salesi Uhatafe, the lone returning full-time starter from a year ago, will either start at right tackle or left guard with Darrin Paulo manning the other spot. Jackson Barton is expected to fill the void at left tackle created by Garett Bolles after he departed to the NFL. Former walk-on Lo Falemaka will start at center. Junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva will get the nod at right guard.
Injuries to Falemaka and Agasiva limited their reps during fall camp. Falemaka’s absence provided a bit of a scare since he has missed 14 games over the last two seasons with injuries.
Their absence opened the door for Utah to develop depth along the line of scrimmage a little faster than anticipated.
“We haven’t had a solid set five that have worked together,” assistant head coach Jim Harding said. “The positive on that is our development of the younger guys is ahead of where it’s been in the past because we’ve had guys out. Those young guys, some of them true freshmen, have to come in and play against a really good defensive front and their development has been sped up.”
Uhatafe has been a reliable anchor for the inexperienced unit. The senior has started at right tackle for the past three seasons. He has embraced the role of mentor and leader in his final year.
In film sessions and practice, Uhatafe’s humor offers a nice counterbalance to the seriousness of the coaching staff. He also takes his job seriously and does his part to help younger linemen to keep their composure and give themselves room to learn.
“Most of the time, with such a young group, they want everything to be perfect,” Uhatafe said. “That’s unrealistic in a game. You’re not going to have every play blocked perfectly. As a group, if we can learn to keep moving forward despite little bumps in the road, I think we’ll be better off in the long run.”
Transitioning to a high tempo offense under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor has required some adjustments for the linemen. They have had to learn some new terminology even as their assignments remain similar to what they’ve seen before. They’ve had to adjust conditioning to keep up with a tighter no-huddle pace.
One of the things that’s helped the most with adjusting to a new offense, Barton said, is going up against a defensive line considered to be one of the best in the Pac-12 on a daily basis.
“Getting experience helps,” Barton said. “For us, our defense is so good at getting us ready for games. They’re hard nosed and hard working guys. It’s like going to a game every day because you know those guys are going to bring their A game.”
Utah has placed a greater emphasis on throwing the ball during fall camp as the Utes try to get up to speed with their new offense. Still, it doesn’t mean that Utah is abandoning its running ways.
The Utes regularly favored the run over the pass in previous seasons because they struggled to generate a credible threat with their passing game. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham doesn’t think that will be a major issue this season.
He praised the offensive line for their progress in camp and thinks this group has what it takes to be effective as both run blockers and pass blockers when the Utes open their season against North Dakota on August 31st.
“You don’t want to lose your physicality, but I don’t think we have,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got tough guys up front and they’re very physical. The better you throw the ball, the looser those defenses become and the more effective you can run the ball, so they play off of each other.”