The Utah Utes thrived in 2013 at getting after the quarterback. They led the Pac-12 and finished second in the nation averaging 3.25 sacks per game. But the team will have to replace their top two pass-rushing defensive linemen in 2014 with Trevor Reilly and Tenny Palepoi graduating this offseason. Add in the loss of pass-rushing linebacker Jacoby Hale this spring and the pressure is on to find a new leader in the pass rush. Is senior defensive end Nate Orchard up to the challenge?
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Orchard was a fixture in the defensive rotation in 2013 and recorded three sacks, along with 49 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. With Hale sidelined by his knee injury, Orchard is the team’s leading returning pass-rusher and will be given a much bigger role in the defense as the leader of the defensive front in 2014.
It will be a major challenge, however, to pick up the slack. In all, Utah loses 20 sacks from the 2013 season between Reilly, Hale, and Palepoi, who all combined to be a dominant force in getting after the quarterback. The Utes’ coaching staff has placed a lot of trust in Orchard during the spring to step up as a leader on defense and become a dominant presence on the line.
Orchard has the skillset to be a difference-maker for Utah in 2014 but he will have to raise his game as a leader if the Utes hope to maintain their relentless pass rush. Their success in 2014 will be heavily influenced by how well Orchard grows into his role as a featured part of the defense. Will he carry the mantle of leadership well?