Entering his fifth year in Notre Dame’s football program, grad student Justin Utupo is still looking to find a role in the Irish defense. An undersized defensive lineman who only saw reserve playing time after injuries decimated the Irish defensive line last year, Utupo was asked back for a fifth year, perhaps a surprise to most that follow the program.
But Utupo’s productivity down the stretch, not to mention his ability to play in a system that better fits his body type and athleticism, has kept the senior in the mix, earning his way onto this week’s two-deep behind Sheldon Day. In his final season of college football, let’s take a look at what Utupo can provide the Irish defense.
6'0.5" 290 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 53
Utupo was named the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year after his senior season of high school football, an accolade that speaks highly of his production in a football rich location. But he didn’t have scholarship offers from either USC or UCLA, with both programs likely skipping out on him because of his tweener size.
Kelly’s comments on Signing Day didn’t get into specifics as to where he’ll play, but as a defensive lineman that he inherited, the Irish staff seemed to have a good idea as to what he could do.
“He was named lineman of the year by the L.A. Times. And you could see how he arrives at the ball with a bad attitude,” Kelly said. “He plays with a great passion... He’ll breathe a lot of energy and passion into our defense. Loves to play the game.”
Freshman Season (2010):Did not see game action.
Sophomore Season (2011): Played in 12 games as a sophomore, contributing mostly on special teams.
Junior Season (2012): Contributed in the final 11 games of the season, mostly on special teams, though did make appearances on defense.
Senior Season (2013): Made seven total tackles while playing in all 13 games. Saw significant time after injuries decimated the defensive front. Made three tackles against Pittsburgh, had two tackles, including one TFL, against Air Force.
I’ve probably been higher on Utupo than just about anyone, and I’m still finding it hard to believe this is the year that he can make a big difference. That being said, if it isn’t in this system with this depth chart, he never had the ability to do it.
Brian VanGorder’s one-gap scheme seems to favor the type of player Utupo has become, a disruptive but undersized defensive lineman that isn’t the type of player who can two-gap. Backing up Sheldon Day, Utupo will be at his best as a high motor replacement, taking a few snaps while Day catches his breath.
Asked to probably do more this season than anybody expected, it’ll be interesting to see if a fifth year ends up getting some production out of Utupo.
The more Irish fans see Utupo on the field, the bigger worry there is that something is wrong with Day. Still, at 290 pounds, Utupo isn’t the type of interior pushover that sometimes was forced onto the field in the Weis era. At his best, he’s capable of contributing 10-15 snaps of productive play a game, doing his best to wreak havoc from the three-technique.
As a fifth year player, he’s finally playing in a scheme that suits him. Whether that’s enough to finish his career on a productive note remains to be seen.
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