The Fab Four are the difference on defense

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

Eric Weddle has been the marquee name on the Utes’ defense since spring ball begin. It’s true Weddle can shut down opposing receivers faster than E. coli can halt the sale of spinach, but No. 32 isn’t the sole reason the defense has looked sharp so far. It’s hardly a secret that the U’s past two opponents could make Weber State’s defense look fearsome, but the defensive line has anchored the strong showing-especially against the run-for Kyle Whittingham’s squad thus far.

“We’ve had good success defending the run, (and) we’ve generated eight sacks,” Whittingham said. “If we continue to sustain, and play the way we’ve been playing, we’ve got a chance to become a very good defense.”

A defensive lineman doesn’t just dance a version of the cha-cha with a 300-pound man in a different-colored jersey. The defensive line is the anchor to the defense. When a defensive line has the ability to slow down the running game, it makes an opponent one-dimensional and easier to exploit. The basic job of the D-line’s is simple: Penetrate the offensive line, wrap up the guy with the ball and tip the pigskin if it’s tossed in the air.

The U’s defensive line features a vital combination of power and speed. This combination allows the front four to be extremely physical on the defensive side of the ball-a priceless asset to a successful defense. The men in the middle are defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Kelly Talavou. Both of these guys are amazingly quick for their size and strength. Talavou and Soliai have quick moves off the snap of the football, which allows them to successfully plug the running lanes and get pressure in the behind the line of scrimmage.

“They’re strong, man, as you can see. In the middle, they’re real powerful up front,” said teammate and fellow D-lineman Martail Burnett.

Burnett and Soli Lefiti play the ends on the defensive line. Both players have the strength to fend off blockers, and Burnett has the speed and athleticism on him to push opponents’ running games to the edges, which gives the rest of the defense time to make plays on the ball.

Coach Whittingham said the strength and physicality of the front four is what makes the D-line so effective.

“We’re so physical. The physicality of Kelly Talavou and Paul Solei, Gabe Long, a new addition, Martail Burnett who can use his speed and athleticism on the edge, and we have Soli Lefiti, who’s a combination of size and strength,” he said.

Although UCLA handed the Utes a disappointing first-week loss, the defensive line was a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre team performance. The D-line was largely responsible for holding the Bruins to 107 yards on 41 carries, which translates to 2.6 yards per attempt. Ask any football coach in the country, and they will tell you they can make mountains out of that kind of mud.

“We allowed 2.6 yards a carry, which is outstanding. We do that all year long and our rush defense is going to be one of the best, if not the best, in the conference,” Whittingham said after the loss to UCLA.

The defensive line has been especially effective getting in the backfield and disrupting opposing running games this year. The front four has anchored another solid performance the following week against Northern Arizona. The defensive line held NAU to 74 yards on the ground on 26 carries-a skimpy 2.8 yards-per-carry average. The D-line also had 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, good for 25 total lost yards. The defensive line followed up the NAU performance with a manhandling of Utah State’s running game. The U held USU to 34 yards on 29 running plays, barely one yard per attempt.

It appears that the U’s defensive line wants to make a habit of keeping teams under three yards per carry. If the front four can continue that trend, the defensive linemen are going to allow guys like Weddle, Brice McCain and Casey Evans the opportunity to focus less on the run, and more on shutting down the opponent’s air attack.

Like any good team, the defensive line knows that it has only played three games, and the front four need to continue to improve to give the team a solid chance of winning for the entire year.

“We’ve been doing pretty good so far,” Burnett said. “We’ve got to continue to get better, continue to get to the quarterback faster, stuff the run behind the line a little bit more, but for the most part, we’re doing fairly well against the teams we’ve played.”

If the Utes’ D-line gets much better, the rest of the U’s opponents might want to look out. The Mountain West is going to have its hands full trying to keep Talavou and Soliai from exploding off the ball and into the backfield and blowing up another run attempt. The MWC teams will also have their hands full trying to keep Burnett and Lefiti from torching the edges and flushing the quarterback out of the pocket. That’s a tall order-but one defensive coordinator, Gary Anderson, and his squad feel more than ready to take on.

Lennie Mahler

Utah linebacker Sylvester Stevenson breaks through the Northern Arizona offensive with other Ute defenders to take down NAU quarterback Jason Murrietta in the first half of the Sept. 9 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium.