Utah Hoping To Get ‘Sack Lake City’ Back On Track

Aug 2, 2023, 11:03 AM

SALT LAKE CITY – You’ve heard it before- “Welcome to Sack Lake City”. Utah football has a proud history of being a sack machine on defense, even appointing a “mayor”. The last few years have been a little dry though, something defensive end coach Lewis Powell, and defensive tackle coach Luther Elliss are hoping to remedy in 2023.

The optimism is high for the defensive line who has been a tad on the young side in the Utes’ 2021 and 2022 campaigns. That group has a lot more playing experience and time in the weight room now- two elements that could bode well for the group in the upcoming season.

Additionally, Utah also dealt with some key injuries in both 2021 and 2022 that likely slowed some of their production down as well. The good news is those key guys are healthy now and looking ready to roll.

Sack Lake City By The Numbers

Let’s rewind to 2014 when the “Sack Lake City” craze first started with defensive end and “Mayor” Nate Orchard.

That year, Utah finished with 55 sacks on the year for 325 yards. Orchard accounted for 18.5 of those sacks, coming in second in the Pac-12 only behind Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha at a full 19.

In 2022, the Utes produced 41 total sacks for 304 yards. Not too bad all things considered.

However, the effort took a committee, largely due to injuries. The “Mayor” or sack leader last season ended up being Gabe Reid with 5.5 sacks.

Fellow defensive end Van Fillinger was close to Reid’s number before a season-ending injury with five sacks while Jonah Elliss had three before he called it a season. Defensive tackle Simote Pepa accounted for four sacks.

Utah also got some help from the linebackers bringing the quarterback down in 2022. Karene Reid and Mohamoud Diabate both recorded five sacks, while freshman Lander Barton was on their heels with 4.5.

Where Will Utah See Improvements In The Sack Game?

As mentioned above, the Utes dealt with some untimely injuries from key players last season that hindered the kind of momentum you need to have a dominant performance like Orchard, Hunter Dimick or any of the other really great defensive ends that have come through Utah’s program.

“Every single year, obviously, we want to stop the run and get after the quarterback,” Powell said of the defensive ends. “We did struggle a little bit last year- a little bit of injuries and then Van went down. Thank goodness we had Gabe Reid. We also had Connor O’Toole that came in- he started late but started doing really well toward the end. Hopefully we don’t have that issue this year. We have a bunch of guys in the room with a bunch of ability and we should be a lot better in that area.”

Getting Fillinger & Elliss Back Full Strength Will Help

Powell feels good about where Fillinger and Elliss are after being sidelined and hindered a bit last season with injuries early on in fall camp.

“Jonah looks good- he looks the best he’s ever been,” Powell said. “He has a high ceiling and if he stays healthy, he will play really well. Love how Van looks right now. Before he got hurt, he was one of our best defenders. I think he is going to come in and hit the ground running. He’s got a little chip on his shoulder. He appreciates being able to walk now after being in a boot for such a long time. Toward the last part of spring and all of summer he’s been full-go and looked good.”

Could Connor O’Toole Be Another Nate Orchard Story?

Comparing O’Toole to someone who produced like Orchard might be a tad unfair, but they have something very similar in their DNA that isn’t terribly common as a defensive end- starting out as a skinny wide receiver.

Orchard’s transformation through Utah’s first few seasons in the Pac-12 was nothing short of amazing. He left the program a completely different person both physically and mentally. In fact, it could be argued that Orchard is one of the coaching staff’s best evaluation and development stories ever.

The Utes may not have to rely on those transformations quite as much these days as recruiting has vastly picked up. However, the staff has shown they aren’t afraid to make those calls when they see fit- Devin Lloyd is a great recent example and the talk is O’Toole has been making similar strides as some of the guys who have come before.

“We show him Nate- he for sure is almost the same type of story,” Powell said. “He comes in as a small receiver and gains 50 lbs. and just does a great job. The thing about Connor is we saw his progress throughout the year. His playing time went up, he ended up starting for us the last part of the season. He had a couple of sacks and big-time plays. I think he is more eager because he saw the limited success, he saw last year. He wants to continue to grow and develop.”

Powell Sees A Lot Of Growth, Potential In His Room

To say Powell is bullish on his room would be an understatement. He sees the potential in his veterans while also noticing where his younger players could eventually develop to and is looking forward to the competition.

“The growth between Connor, Van, Jonah and also Logan Fano, Chase Kennedy and Ka’eo Akana- it’s a pretty deep group and we’re excited these guys are going to come in and compete,” Powell said. “Hopefully the starters will continue to stay consistent and continue to lead. That’s something I’m looking for is more leadership from the older crew and hopefully the younger guys continue to grow and develop.”

Let’s Work Together (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)

Powell is hopeful the growth in his own room will coincide with the growth happening in coach Elliss’ room to bring “Sack Lake City” back to prominence. Powell noted the critical nature of both elements of the defensive line being able to work together in order to increase the pressure Utah puts on opposing quarterbacks in 2023.

“It’s huge- we have the talent,” Powell said. “I think those guys want to see more success. I’m excited to see how they do. They have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, and they want to do good.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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Utah Hoping To Get ‘Sack Lake City’ Back On Track