Utah defensive line aiming for ‘Sack Lake City’ return

“Sack Lake City” has been on the decline as of late for Utah football.
After totaling 40 sacks in 2017, 32 in 2018 and 26 in 2019, Utah saw a dip to 13 sacks in 2021 and 15 sacks last season.
Though the sack slowdown didn’t get in the way of the Utes winning back-to-back Pac-12 titles, Utah is looking to get more pressure on the quarterback this season as the Utes try for a Pac-12 three-peat.
“I feel like we have a bunch of guys in the room that are with a bunch of ability and that we should be a lot better in that area,” defensive ends coach Lewis Powell said.
Junior Van Fillinger is penciled in to start on at defensive end in Utah’s 4-3 base defense after his 2022 season was cut short due to injury. Prior to the season-ending injury at the end of October, Fillinger was leading the team with five sacks. Back healthy, the two-year starter will be a force on the defensive line and was named to the preseason All-Pac-12 second team.
Juniors Jonah Elliss and Connor O’Toole will battle it out for the other starting defensive end position. Elliss started eight games, but battled injuries at the end of the year, being replaced as a starter by O’Toole for the final four games of the season. Elliss capped the season with an All-Pac-12 honorable mention after six tackles for loss, the second-most on the defensive line. O’Toole, who switched from wide receiver to defense in 2022, finished with 41 tackles, leading the defensive line.
Fillinger, O’Toole and Elliss will be the three main pieces in the defensive end spots, but Utah looks like it has plenty of depth entering the season.
Four-star freshman Logan Fano, three-star redshirt freshman Chase Kennedy and three-star redshirt freshman Ka’eo Akana give Utah options behind the defensive tackle starters.
“Man, it’s awesome to see the edges. We just know that whichever guy’s going up, man, they’re going to win the rep,” defensive tackle Junior Tafuna said.
Junior Aliki Vimahi, who started nine games in 2022 and played in all 14 games, will also contend for the other starting tackle spot. Vimahi had 14 tackles, with two for loss and one sack in 2022.
Backing up those players could be redshirt freshman Keanu Tanuvasa, who played in four games with six tackles last season and redshirt sophomore Tevita Fotu.
Redshirt freshman James LeBaron, who was named to the Deseret News All-State First Team at Corner Canyon, and Snow College transfer Nifai Tonga provide even more depth.
“We got a whole lot of depth up front and we’re just excited every day we’re just taking it with a mindset, just getting better every day than before,” Tafuna said.
In his second season as defensive end coach, former Utah and NFL player Luther Elliss is provoking change in his players.
“The experience for Coach Elliss, just taking in his feedback, has helped us a whole lot,” Tafuna said. “Changed our view of the game and just being more situationally sound ... and just being more confident. I’d say training in the offseason with the boys, we’ve gained a lot of confidence, gained more tools in the pack to throw out.”
In practice, the defensive line is going against Utah’s experienced offensive line, which is supposed to be a strong point of the Utes’ offense this year. As the old saying goes, iron sharpens iron.
“It gives us the opportunity every day to go against what I consider one of the best o-lines in the Pac-12, maybe in the country,” Elliss said. “And when you get to compete those guys every day, it gets you to really hone and sharpen your skills and allows you to see really kind of where are we at as a defensive line.”
With returning experience and depth, the Utah defensive line is ready for a return to form.
“What I am most confident in is I think they are ready to come out and compete and perform like they should,” Elliss said.

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