There is a familiar face coaching the Utah tight ends this season, former defensive lineman Lewis Powell. Powell's best moment in his playing career was winning the Liberty Bowl Defensive Player of the Game, a game in which he recovered two fumbles and had a tackle for loss in a game Utah won 17-0 over Southern Miss. Powell came to Utah as a Super Prep All-American from Menlo-Atherton High School in East Palo Alto, Calif. Former Utah head coach Ron McBride, Gary Anderson, and Kyle Whittingham all did a great job recruiting Powell. He also liked that many other Polynesian players were playing for Utah. He knew when he came to Utah on his official visit that it was the school he wanted to attend.
"It felt like home. I had a connection from the beginning. I tell people all the time, ‘if I could go through my recruiting again, I would go to Utah again,'" said Powell.
After playing in the Arena Football League as both and offensive and defensive tackle for the Memphis Xplorers (2005) and Utah Blaze (2006-08), Powell made the transition to coaching. He started out as a graduate assistant at Utah from 2009-10. He spent 2011 as an administrative assistant. In 2012, he returned the state where he was born to coach the defensive line at Hawaii. He coached the defensive line at Hawaii for three years before returning to his alma mater in 2015 to coach tight ends. While some coaches may dream of coaching at schools like Alabama, Michigan, Texas, USC, or other big-name program, Powell knew Utah was always the place where he wanted to coach. It has been a goal of his for a long time to become a coach at Utah, a goal he has now achieved.
All of Powell's previous playing experience and position coaching experience is on the defensive line, so some may wonder how the transition has gone for him to the other side of the ball, working with the tight ends.
"When I was here as a graduate assistant, I worked with the tight ends on the scout team. It was not absolutely foreign for me. I did have a little knowledge. It has been great for me being back. It has opened up my eyes to a different side of the ball. I know we did things on defense and why people do what they do on offense. I am working with great people," said Powell.
Working with coaches like co-offensive coordinators Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding, running backs coach Dennis Erickson, and wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield has really helped Powell develop as an offensive coach, providing a smooth transition for me. He put it best when he said, "It has been nothing but good things since I moved to offense side of the ball."
With his background coaching and playing on the defensive side, he feels that helps him on offense. He has an understanding of what the defense is thinking and how they will react to a certain play, which is a unique skill that many offensive coaches lack.
For current tight ends, Powell highlighted the receiving ability of Evan Moeai and the blocking ability of Siale Fakailoatonga, saying that he is almost like an extra offensive linemen. Powell feels that the tight ends Utah has are a perfect fit for what Utah wants to do offensively. The tight ends will be as big or a bigger factor compared to last season.
Powell has a lot of familiarity with the current Utah staff. He played under Whittingham, who was his defensive coordinator and was teammates with safeties coach Morgan Scalley. He said he is comfortable working with Whittingham and that it has been a great experience so far.
Since the days of coach Mac, Utah has put an emphasis on recruiting Polynesians. Meyer and Whittingham continued the so-called "Poly Pipeline." Utah has landed highly touted Polynesians like James Aiono, Latu Heimuli, Harvey Langi, Hiva Lutui, and Jeremiah Poutasi coming out of high school or junior college. The Utes have also taken under the radar recruits like Luther Elliss, Star Lotulelei, and Nate Orchard and turned them into All-Americans and NFL Draft picks. Utah consistently puts Polynesians into the NFL and will continue to do so. The Polynesian community is very tight knit, so Utah's connection and the past success that Polynesians have had at Utah allow the Utes to go after and land many top-tier Polynesian recruits. Having a coach like Powell, who is well respected in the Polynesian community, also certainly will help Utah continue to recruit many talented Polynesian athletes. As Powell said, part of the reason he is on staff is because he is "familiar the community, the traditions, and the culture." Coach Powell touched on the importance of Polynesian athletes to Utah football.
"I think [the Polynesian Pipeline] is really important," said Powell. "The game is won or lost in the trenches [on the] offensive line and defensive line. That was coach McBride, and coach Meyer, and now coach Whittingham's philosophy is to win up front. A lot of the guys who are up front are the Polynesian kids. I think that we can compete with anybody recruiting a top-tier Polynesian kid just because of how many kids we have gotten to the NFL that are Polynesian. I am pretty sure that we have the most Polynesians ever in the NFL of any institutions, and we have the most active kids in the NFL of any institution. Coach Whittingham does a good job with academics, and everyone comes and they graduate. There is a comfort zone here for Polynesian kids. I think coach Whittingham learning from coach McBride and coach Urban Meyer does a great job with not only the Polynesian kids but the Polynesian community [as a whole]."
The volume of Polynesian athletics that Utah has put into the NFL is a great tool for the coaching staff to use to recruit the top-tier Polynesian athletes. As Powell said, "The University recruits itself when it comes to Polynesians." He talked about the rich tradition of Polynesian athletes at Utah. It is a place where they can thrive because Whittingham makes academics a focus, so his player graduate. Many of them, especially Polynesians, end up playing in the NFL as well.
The Utah players and staff all seem to put the team ahead of individual achievement. Safety Jason Thompson even told me he would carry the water if that is what would help the team win. This attitude was very apparent from talking to coach Powell. He uttered a phrase I have heard from many other Utah coaches and players: "I am willing to do whatever to help us win." Having a program built around this attitude, especially from the coaches is key to running a successful program. Because of his attitude, familiarity with former players and the Polynesian community, and passion for the University of Utah, Lewis Powell is a perfect fit as a coach at Utah.