With the departure of versatile linebacker/defensive end Trevor Reilly to graduation (and the NFL's New York Jets), Utah was clearly looking for either a rotation at defensive end or a solid replacement during spring practices. One end is decided with the return of senior Nate Orchard, so in fall camp, Utah will be solidifying their candidates for Orchard's backup and an end for the opposite side of the line.
Nate Orchard: 6'4" 255 Senior
Perhaps the team's most dominant defensive player and most likely candidate for Pac-12 post season honors, Orchard will begin his third straight year starting at left end for the Utes in the fall. Orchard is also the defense's most experienced player, having played in all 37 games since his freshman season in 2011 and starting every game since 2012.
Orchard proved that, at times, he could overpower Pac-12 offensive lines, with his best showing coming against then fifth ranked Stanford. In the game, Orchard recorded five tackles, two sacks and forced two fumbles in the winning effort for the Utes. He was also named the Athlon National Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
Orchard turned out to be a decent run stopper last year with nine tackles for loss, but he struggled at times to finish off quarterbacks that he had pass rushed into tight spots. Even with his two sacks against Stanford, Orchard finished the season with only three and a half sacks to his credit. One could argue that it's difficult to sack such mobile and elusive quarterbacks as Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, and Taylor Kelly, but Orchard is going to need to find a way to contain those guys if he wants to get the Utes back to a bowl game and improve his NFL draft stock.
Barring an injury, Orchard has the size and skill to become one of the Pac-12's elite pass rushers. Expect Orchard to improve in every statistical category and see a dramatic increase in sacks and pass breakups this season. It's an all-conference first team selection or bust for the former Utah high school 4A MVP, and some preseason publications (which we'll break down later this week) have Orchard making the All Pac-12 Second Team.
Hunter Dimick: 6'3" 270 Sophomore (RS)
The former two time Region 1 Defensive MVP out of Syracuse, UT came into spring ball looking to cement a starting spot at right end this season. After his performance in the spring, Dimick would have the job all but sewn up, except that Jason Fanaika, another local product out of Pleasant Grove, transferred from Utah State. Now, Dimick is in a battle for the starting role.
Dimick played in all 12 games for the Utes last season, with four starts against Utah State, Oregon State, Arizona, and Colorado. He finished the season with 30 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, two of which were sacks. Dimick saved his best performance for last, finishing the Colorado game with four tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble against Utah's eastern rocky mountain rivals.
While Dimick has done well to make an impact in his first season and compete for starters minutes, he should, once again, be splitting the starting reps throughout the 2014 season, barring an injury or drop in production from Fanaika. The possibilities that arise from having two worthy right ends to sub in and out will be too much for coach Whittingham and coach Sitake to pass up, especially since both options are experienced FBS players. I believe the reps will be split situationally. Dimick looks more like a speedy tackle and will most likely play more against the more run oriented teams on the schedule, whereas Fanaika looks more like a traditional end and could aid Nate Orchard in containing the myriad of dangerous Pac-12 quarterbacks. That being said, Dimick represents the future of the hallowed Utah defensive line, and I wouldn't be surprised if he took complete control of the right end position near the latter stages of the season.
Pita Taumoepenu: 6'1" 230 Sophomore
The Tongan native had never played a down of American football before he moved to Timpview High School in 2012. Now, after lettering as a true freshman in 2013, Taumoepenu is backing up Nate Orchard at the left end position and could make a big impact on the Utes' defense in years to come. (Many liken Taumoepenu to Orchard himself, but, like Orchard, will need to add weight and strength in the next year or two without sacrificing speed.)
In his first year playing football for Timpview, Taumoepenu racked up 25 sacks and 68 total tackles to help lead the Thuderbirds to another 4A state championship. As a true freshman at Utah, Taumopenu played in seven games. While playing primarily on special teams, Taumopenu made his way onto the field on defense against Weber State, Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State while recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
Taumoepenu will bring needed depth to the Utes' defensive line and will, hopefully, allow Orchard to get some much needed rest, as he will be relied upon heavily throughout the season. With Orchard graduating after this season, look for Taumoepenu to make some big strides, as he is the likely favorite to replace Orchard in 2015.
Jason Fanaika: 6'3" 270 Junior (RS)
As noted above, Fanaika will be competing with Dimick for the starting right end position. The two came out of spring ball as co-starters for the job. The two will likely split time at end once the season starts.
Fanaika began his collegiate career at Utah State where he played in 2010 (as a true freshman) and 2011. Over his two years at USU, Fanaika played in 11 games with four starts, including the Aggies 2011 game against Nevada where he tallied five tackles, half a sack, and a pass breakup. In 2010, Fanaika recorded 15 tackles, a tackle for a loss, one forced fumble, and one pass broken up. In 2011, he recorded 14 tackles, two for a loss, and half a sack.
After joining the Utes last fall, Fanaika redshirted the 2013 season and has impressed the defensive coaching staff ever since. Fanaika, a redshirt junior, is expected to make the most of his chances this season, but don't be surprised if Dimick cements the right end spot sometime during the season. In either case, Utah has to talented right ends to bully tight ends and left tackles in the Pac-12.
Harvey Langi: 6'2" 250 Sophomore
Langi, the highly touted running back out of Salt Lake powerhouse Bingham High School, will make the switch to defensive end this fall when he returns from his LDS mission in Tampa, Fla. later this summer. As a true freshman in 2011, Langi rushed for 70 yards on 13 carries including a 33-yard performance against the team down south and a 30-yard game against UCLA.
As a smaller, more agile defensive end, I imagine that coach Whittingham intends to mold Langi into a "Trevor Reilly" like end/linebacker hybrid. His speed and athleticism will terrorize slower offensive tackles, and knowledge of offensive schemes could make him a valuable asset when dropped into coverage. Surely it will take some time to get Langi back into football shape and ready to take on defensive assignments, but this seems like the player rebuild project that coach Whittingham relishes and, more often than not, succeeds at.
Clarence Smith: 6'2" 240 Freshman (RS)
Smith came to the Utes in 2013 as a walk-on but was quickly placed on scholarship after impressing the coaching staff with his work ethic. After redshirting the 2013 season and playing as a defensive back on the scout team, Smith made the switch to defensive end this past spring.
As a senior at Youngker High School (Ariz.), Smith rushed for 1,253 yards on 124 carries, averaging an astonishing 10.1 yards per carry. His speed and running ability could directly translate to the defensive side of the ball and his size makes him a prototypical speed rusher. Like Taumoepenu, Smith will need to put on another 15-20 pounds to be able to fight off large Pac-12 tackles, but this young player has a lot of upside. Barring an injury, don't expect to see Smith on the field often, but be sure to watch him rushing the edge if the Utes are ever in a garbage time situation (perhaps Idaho State). With this season under his belt, Smith might be one to watch in the spring, as Utah looks for a replacement for Orchard.
One wild card could be 6-5, 253 former tight end Greg Reese who switched to defensive end in the spring. He has the athletic ability to push the above players for minutes, but there does seem to be a glut at the position. Perhaps someone like Reese, Langi, or Smith may be moved backward to shore up the ailing linebacking corps; however, at the moment, there is a line of talent at both ends. If Utah can plug some holes at linebacker, Utah's front seven could be stout in 2014.