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SALT LAKE CITY — As a skinny wide receiver coming from Highland High School, where his team won a state championship his senior year, Nate Orchard (then Fakahafua) embarked on a new path to the University of Utah in hopes of continuing his football career.
Following a change to his last name, marriage and a daughter, Orchard has become a household name, not only for Utah fans and those that pay close attention to football in the state, but for many in the Pac-12 and around the nation. Even Sports Illustrated has taken notice of Orchard this year.
Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports has also included Orchard in the Heisman race ballot:
Just filed to http://t.co/egTVCIu30K Heisman rankings: 1, Mariota 2. J.T. Barrett 3. Melvin Gordon 4. Amari Cooper 5. Nate Orchard, Utah — Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) November 17, 2014
No longer is Orchard the skinny kid lining up on offense against a cornerback prior to one of several routes intended to get him the ball. Now, Orchard is explosive, more than 60 pounds heavier and a nightmare on defense for any opposing quarterback who hopes his offensive line gives enough protection.
Orchard’s ability to use his hands and feet to get off the edge makes him a threat that every team has to scheme against or they’ll face the wrath of a blitzing Orchard — and nearly every team Utah has played this year has felt that wrath.
“He’s having a fantastic senior year," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told ESPN 700 following a 20-17 win over Stanford. "I talked to Nate all offseason and I said, ‘Nate, if we’re going to be good you’re going to have to be a force off the edge,’ and he’s every bit of that."
Orchard, who was expected to fill the shoes of departing seniors Trevor Reilly and Tenny Palepoi from last season, has stepped up and made a name for himself and in the record books at Utah. With his 3.5 sacks against Stanford, Orchard became the school's single-season sack leader, eclipsing Jimmy Ballamy’s record of 15 set in 1991.
He's certainly the leader of our football team and having a terrific senior year and doing everything we could ask of him on and off the field. What he means to our football team, from a lot of different aspects on a lot of different levels can't be overstated.
In Orchard’s first three years with Utah he had a combined 6.5 sacks. Now, Orchard is four sacks away from tying the school record for career sacks held by John Frank set from 1996-99. Orchard is currently fourth in school history in career sacks at 23, eclipsing Steve Clark and Trevor Reilly following the Stanford game.
Orchard is also second in total sack yards in a single season at 108 — seven yards away from the lead — and is fourth in career sacks yards at 148.
"He’s certainly the leader of our football team and having a terrific senior year and doing everything we could ask of him on and off the field," Whittingham told ESPN 700. "What he means to our football team, from a lot of different aspects on a lot of different levels can’t be overstated."
But for Orchard, it’s never about his individual performance, it’s always about the team and the effort everyone is doing that makes Utah’s defense so successful.
“Guys are just relentless. They want to get home and get the quarterback — help our DBs out,” Orchard said. “And we do that by getting sacks.”
It’s no secret Utah, particularly Orchard, has been successful at getting to the quarterback and getting a sack. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley alone has been on the receiving end of 10 Utah sacks this season.
Utah leads the nation with 47 sacks, which is seven more sacks than its closest challenger, Washington. Orchard, too, is tied with Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha for the most individual sacks in the nation at 16.5. Their next closest challenger is Arizona’s Scooby Wright III, who has 12 sacks this season.
"I feel like we have four guys that can hurt you at all times as far as pass rush goes," fellow defensive end Hunter Dimick said. "Obviously Nate is the premier, but no matter who opponents slide to or double team, there are three guys that are on their way, and they can get there pretty quick."
With two games left in the regular season, Orchard and his fellow defensive linemen look to keep the “Sack Lake City” name alive, where Orchard is the undisputed "mayor."