No ordinary frosh

By By Tony Pizza, Sports Editor

By Tony Pizza, Sports Editor

When the 2008 football season started, defensive coordinator Gary Andersen hoped that he’d eventually have four starting defensive tackles to choose from. Two weeks into the season, he would have been satisfied with two.

In the season opener against Michigan, Andersen and the Utes lost starting tackle Kenape Eliapo to a broken foot. The following week, Eliapo’s backup, Lei Talamaivao, broke his leg against UNLV. That left Greg Newman and a big question mark at Andersen’s disposal.

Utah spent the entire weekend going over its options. One option was to move one of its stud defensive ends8212;either Paul Kruger or Koa Misi8212;inside, and possibly move Nai Fotu down to defensive end. Another option was to pull Paul Kruger’s younger brother, David, out of his redshirt year and move him inside. In the end the Utes decided to platoon the position, with Derrick Shelby getting the most reps. Not even Andersen could have predicted that the duct tape maneuver would eventually turn into a factory-warrantied fix.

“I’d say he was an extremely pleasant surprise,” Andersen said of Shelby. “He played in a very competitive system in high school and that gave him the ability to come in here and compete at a high level, mentally, early. He does a great job preparing.”

It’s a coin toss as to which feat is more impressive8212;the fact that Shelby is a redshirt freshman who has filled Utah’s need in the trenches so well, or the fact that he’s a converted defensive end that had never played a snap of defensive tackle before Sept. 13, 2008. Either way, Shelby attributes his success to both the system he grew up with at High Tower High School in Houston, Texas, and the coaching staff here at the U.

“Just being coached hard and trying to make the best of everything,” Shelby said when asked about the key to his successful leap from freshman to starter. “It’s not every day you get the chance to start for a D-I school as a freshman, so just trying to take advantage of it.”

At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Shelby is undersized compared to a traditional defensive lineman. Even Newman, Shelby’s partner on the inside of Utah’s defensive line, is undersized at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds. Eliapo has more of the traditional bulk of a defensive tackle at 6-foot, 303 pounds. But what Shelby has lacked in size, he makes up for in speed and technique.

“He has great pad level, he has great leverage, and he has very good technique,” Andersen said. “But to transfer that from the defensive end position to the defensive tackle position, I’ve never had a kid make that transition that fast, especially for a freshman.”

Andersen also said that Shelby has proven himself to be a true student of the game, something that has helped him transition so quickly.

“He pays attention and he cares about the defense, which is a fairly complicated defense,” Andersen said.

Shelby admits that the expectations surrounding this team from the beginning motivated him to move into the starting defensive tackle position without skipping a beat.

“We knew we had something special and I didn’t want to let my teammates down, so that was the extra boost that helped me play at the level that I’ve been playing at,” Shelby said.

With the Utes heading into New Mexico this week for their ninth game of the season, they have successfully weathered the injury storm front at defensive tackle. Eliapo has recovered from his broken foot and will see playing time this week, Andersen said. But that doesn’t mean Shelby’s time at defensive line is done.

“Derrick will start this football game, but we expect Kenape to play,” Andersen said.

In fact, the only thing that will change with Eliapo being back in the lineup is that Andersen is one guy closer to the goal he had for his defensive line at the start of the season.

“Greg Newman’s ready to play and Sealver (Siliga) is coming on strong every single week so I think we’re getting a little bit closer to saying we have four starters, but Greg and Derrick are the starters,” Andersen said.

Aside from being this week’s starter and heading to Albuquerque, N.M. to face off against one of the best tailbacks in the conference in Rodney Ferguson, Shelby has become a star on the popular online social network, Facebook.

Currently there are 91 members of the Derrick Shelby Fan Club! group, including its creator, Kyndal Robarts of the Utah gymnastics team.

“I owe her back,” Shelby said. “I have to make her one when gymnastics starts.”

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Erik Daenitz

Freshman defensive tackle Derrick Shelby first filled in because of injury but has proven himself as a quality starter and will continue to get playing time even with the return of Kenape Eliapo.