A dark horse again, Utah will lean on veteran O-line in Pac-12 race

Once again flying under the radar in the Pac-12, Utah hopes its battle-tested offensive line will help the Utes be the surprise of the conference in 2016.
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HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — J.J. Dielman doesn’t have a lot of use for social media. The 6' 5", 307-pound Utah offensive lineman keeps his Instagram page private, and uses it only for family, friends and football—preferably, in that order. He’s not trying to post controversial photos or drum up conversation with a scintillating tweet. He ignores fan comments and questions, because that’s the wise, veteran move. He’s just trying to enjoy college, and college football, in his final season in Salt Lake City.

But then, while killing time before the official start of Pac-12 media days inside the Hollywood & Highland Center Thursday morning, Dielman found himself scrolling through Instagram when a Pac-12 post from that morning caught his eye. “RANK THE SOUTH,” the post read, “who do you think takes the Pac-12 South crown?”

Dielman flipped past it before any of the responses could register with him.

Perhaps this season will be like seasons past in that if you don’t live in Salt Lake, you’re probably not thinking of the Utes as a potential Pac-12 champ. In a year when star power is down in the Pac-12 (save for the country’s best all-around player, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey) and pundits have already decided the Power Five conference on the left coast is the one that’ll be left out of the College Football Playoff race, the Utes aren’t just flying under the radar, they’re completely off it. To a degree, it’s understandable; Utah has to break in a new quarterback (who hasn’t been selected yet) and a new running back (who will have to replace a two-time all conference player in Devontae Booker).

But as it turns out, the Utes are in the perfect situation to do so—because they return all the guys who are charged with protecting the quarterback and running back.

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O.K., well almost perfect. On July 12 the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah’s projected starting center, Hiva Lutui, would medically retire after suffering a torn ACL in spring practice. Lutui’s absence—he started seven games last season—will lead to some rejiggering on the line, but again, the Utes are in an enviable position. Utah brought in the country’s top junior college recruit, 6' 6", 296-pound Garett Bolles, an offensive tackle from Snow College who was rated a five-star prospect. Though many junior college transfers take a full year to adjust, Bolles is expected (and now will have to) contribute right away. “If you’re looking for depth,” said 12th-year coach Kyle Whittingham, “you recruit high school kids.” Translation: The Utes need playmakers, and stat.

Fortunately, they’ll be able to develop those behind a veteran line (save for Bolles).

There’s four-year starting guard Isaac Asiata, and left tackle Sam Tevi (who started all 13 games last season), and right guard Salesi Uhatafe (who started seven, and played in all 13). The group will be led by Dielman, an all-conference player who started every game at right tackle in 2015 and who likes to talk about how much experience all the backups have, too. On Thursday reporters peppered Dielman with questions about Utah’s dominating 62–20 win over Oregon in Eugene last season, and how that win can impact 2016. (He wasn’t the only one. Ducks coach Mark Helfrich wryly remarked that he’d “been asked 97 times about the Utah game, and I’m trying to forget it with every question.”)

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Dielman remembers everything about that blowout in Autzen Stadium—specifically, that it was insanely loud, and that “I couldn’t hear a dang thing in the red zone.” On one early drive—when the game was still in the Ducks’ reach—Dielman jumped offsides ... and got away with it. Two plays later, the Utes cruised into the end zone for a score. It was, he says, just that kind of day.

Outsiders consider that game the one where Utah finally arrived in the Pac-12—and the reason the Utes can be a player in a wide-open Pac-12 South in 2016. They’ll have plenty of competition, namely from the L.A. schools. USC is still undecided at quarterback between Max Browne and Sam Darnold but has its usual array of five-stars at almost every other position. The Trojans also return their entire offensive line, which tackle Zach Banner likes to brag about. His response to a reporter’s remark that the cliché “games are won in the trenches” often rings true was, “Yep. We win the games. And we know that.” UCLA returns one of the country’s best quarterbacks in Josh Rosen, but lost a handful of starters to the NFL.

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In the preseason media poll released Thursday, UCLA was picked to win the South, with 19 first-place votes, and USC came in second with 12. The Utes, which got two first-place votes, aren’t getting much attention. But they’re used to that, and Dielman says they sort of like it. “At Utah, we’re not flashy, where Saturdays are fashion shows,” he says. “People come here to be blue-collar, to put their hard hat on and go to work.”

A lot of that work will be done at home this season, as the Utes host USC, Oregon and Washington, which has become a popular pick as a team that will surprise nationally. Also on the schedule is a home date with BYU, after a year away from the spirited rivalry. Utah does have to replace integral pieces—also gone is Ray Guy award-winner Tom Hackett, the Utes’ former All-America punter—but it’s got a much deeper talent pool to pull from now. On Thursday, Whittingham told reporters he’d long felt the Utes’ linemen were Power Five, and Pac-12, worthy, even when the program was in the Mountain West. In the last year or so, the skill positions have finally caught up—and as a result, so have the Utes. Going into the 2015 season, Whittingham pointed out to his staff and team that since joining the Pac-12, Utah had yet to beat Oregon, Washington and Arizona State. The Utes went 3–0 against those teams last year.

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If there’s a criticism of the Pac-12, it’s that the conference is too deep, and home to too much parity. There’s no guarantee that one or two teams will emerge as heavyweights and factor into the postseason race. Dielman understands that argument, but also thinks that the idea Utah needs something or some team to aspire to, to take down, is defeatist.

“If you’re looking for another team to set the standard, you’re not going to win the conference,” he says. “If you don’t have that vision and that mind-set, no one is going to give it to you, especially in this conference.”

So instead, Utah is going to try to take it—with the help of some big, burly, battle-tested guys.