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SALT LAKE CITY — Joining the Pac-12 hasn't been the easiest process for Utah, particularly with its offensive woes in years past. But the defense has remained one of the brightest spots in an often dark place.
Utah's defense has been one of the most respectable aspects of the program, and oftentimes most redeeming. Opposing teams speak of Utah's physical, tough defense that does not get pushed around easy or bullied. In each game, the defense becomes a significant challenge for teams in game-planning, even for the elite teams in the conference.
With its rich history of defensive players going to the NFL, including but not limited to Trevor Reilly, Tenny Palepoi, Star Lotulelei, Paul Kruger and Eric Weddle, Utah has another next-level defender in the works in this year's team captain, Nate Orchard.
The former high school wide receiver has honed his skills since making his role on defense permanent and has become one of the biggest threats on the field for opposing offenses in the Pac-12. Whether he's lining up on the edge or standing up at the linebacker position, Orchard brings an element to the game that frustrates teams.
“Nate is such a smart player,” Utah nose tackle Clint Shepard said. “You’ll watch sometimes and he’ll be lined up as linebacker and he’ll walk up, looks like he’s going to blitz and you can hear the o-lineman making shift calls to block him. And then last second he’ll drop into coverage and then that will leave another d-lineman an open hole to get into the back field. It’s great having Nate.”
“One of the first things I assume (opposing teams) worry about is Nate Orchard,” defensive end Hunter Dimick said. “That obviously helps the rest of us because he’s their main concern, which frees us up a little bit.”
Already this season, Orchard leads the team in tackles, recording 14 total tackles (four solo, 10 assisted) and 2.5 sacks. Orchard also recovered a fumble against Fresno State that was a yard short of being a touchdown.
One of the first things I assume (opposing teams) worry about is Nate Orchard. That obviously helps the rest of us because he's their main concern, which frees us up a little bit.
“Nate Orchard is obviously the headliner of that group (of defensive linemen) and a guy that gives us great pressure off the edge,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
With Orchard’s versatility, whether at the defensive end position or linebacker, he plays a role similar to that of former Ute defensive end/linebacker Trevor Reilly. And that high-powered effort and talent of Reilly is exactly what Whittingham is hoping to get out of Orchard this season.
“I think that’s exactly what we’re hoping to get out of him: do the things that Trevor did for us,” Whittingham said. “Some weeks it’s a defensive end, some weeks it’s a linebacker, most weeks it’s going to be a little bit of both. But what Trevor gave us for the last couple of years — three years — is exactly what we think Nate’s going to be able to do for us this year.”
Whittingham said Orchard’s strength will likely make him a strong contender for the outside linebacker position in the NFL — a position Reilly now plays with the New York Jets. But for Orchard’s senior season with Utah, Whittingham is looking to exploit Orchard’s best strength: his ability to put pressure on the offense off the edge.
“Nate’s strength, his main strength right now, is his pressure off the edge — his pass-rushing ability off the edge,” Whittingham said. “We don’t want to take him out of that position very often. But there are going to be times, as there were last week, where we do utilize him and drop him off into coverage.”
“If we drop him off, it’s almost a wasted effort on the offense’s part to try to protect where he is, and it frees up somebody else on the other side,” Whittingham added.
Much to Orchard’s credit and that of his fellow defensive linemen, Utah is tied with Oregon for second in the Pac-12 in sacks this season at 11.
Orchard will be tested this season against several talented Pac-12 offenses, but will have to make his presence known even more than in seasons past, particularly if Utah hopes to make it to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.
If Orchard is successful, Utah will likely possess another defensive player that will have a strong career in the NFL. At the very least, Orchard can help Utah remain relevant in its new conference.