SALT LAKE CITY — Utah defensive linemen believe there’s a certain responsibility that recruits take on when they join the Utes.
The program seems to be loaded at the position every year and 2017 is set up for more of the same despite losing three starters to the NFL, including all-time sacks leader Hunter Dimick.
“It’s pride and responsibility,” senior defensive end Kylie Fitts said. “This is D-Line U. Every year we’re getting the top prospects and we get them in and we have a great (staff) that develops them. We just have a different mentality than others. We just want to go out and eat every day and get better.”
Utah lists eight former defensive linemen in the NFL and it has had at least one defensive lineman named first-team All-Pac-12 every year since joining the league in 2011. The last time the Utes didn’t have at least one defensive lineman named first-team all-conference was in 2000.
The season kicks off Thursday with high expectations for the unit as Utah hosts North Dakota.
Coach Kyle Whittingham doesn’t remember when the trend started and doesn’t think it was particular goal over any other position. The 13-year coach, however, has always been a defensive mind and knows the best place to start building is in the trenches.
Utah’s base 4-3 mimics many NFL systems so that also makes Salt Lake City an attractive destination for recruits.
“Defensive linemen want to come here and they see the success that the defensive line has here and the notoriety that they get,” Whittingham said. “It’s something that has been going on for quite a few years now and it just seems to perpetuate itself.
“When our guys come through this program, they’re ready for that next level from a fundamental standpoint, a technique standpoint and a scheme standpoint.”
The 2017 reload includes three senior starters in defensive tackles Lowell Lotulelei (6-foot-2, 320 pounds) and Filipo Mokofisi (6-4, 295) and end Fitts (6-4, 265). Sophomore Bradlee Anae (6-3, 265) is the other starter at end, but Caleb Repp, Leki Fotu and Pita Tonga are all expected to contribute.
The seniors are known commodities, but there is excitement around the program for the next wave, particularly Anae.
“I like a lot about Bradlee Anae,” Whittingham said. “He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s got the whole package. … He’s tenacious. He’s got a great burst, great get-off. You put him out there with those three seniors, who I think are as good as we’ve had here, and that’s a good group.”
Fitts had seven sacks as a sophomore, but missed all but two games in 2016 due to a foot injury. Lotulelei is the little brother of former Utes standout Star Lotulelei, who was the No. 14 overall pick in 2013 and starts for the Panthers. Lowell is considered one of the best tackle prospects in the country. Mokofisi was All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season and was third on the team with 5.0 sacks.
Both Lotulelei and Mokofisi were named captains of the defense.
“(The coaches) know what they want in the players they bring here and they’re not just going to bring in anybody,” Lotulelei said. “Then when those guys get here, it’s the older players that really set the standard. It’s really a combination of those two.”
The line repeatedly talked about a responsibility to those who came before and Mokofisi said that family atmosphere is fostered by those former Utes returning to campus and staying in touch. That NFL knowledge is passed down from those in the league, as is a certain mindset.
“Just hard work and have that nasty mentality that we’re going to get after whoever’s across the line,” Fitts said.