- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Starters in, starters out. That’s college football. Players’ eligibility expires, and they leave for the rest of their lives, whether that includes the NFL or not.
And they leave behind shoes of various sizes that need to be filled.
Our concern with this series? The biggest shoes -- in some cases Shaq-like size 23s.
Biggest shoes: Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei
Lotulelei, a 2012 All-American and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer, is likely to be an early first-round pick in this spring's NFL draft, even though he has some medical questions. He ranked sixth on the Utes with 42 tackles and led the defense with 10 tackles for a loss. His five sacks ranked second on the team. He also had three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and a blocked kick. But his value wasn't strictly -- or even predominantly -- about numbers. The 320-pounder simple was the nation's most imposing interior lineman, a guy who demanded constant double-teams. That opened things up for the rest of the front seven. The simple fact is you can't replace a guy like Lotulelei because no team in the country has two of him. Further aggravating matters: The Utes are replacing three of their four starting defensive linemen. So not only is the Utes' defense losing its Star, its losing its supporting cast.
Stepping in: Senior Tenny Palepoi
This figures to be a fluid competition. Again, one guy won't "replace" Lotulelei. Palepoi, a 305-pound senior, was a JC transfer last fall and he had 21 tackles, including three for a loss with two sacks while backing up the Utes' other DT, Dave Kruger. Coaches are high on him. LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be part of the spring depth chart. Junior college recruit Sese Ianu will be in the mix immediately, while freshmen Gaius Vaenuku and Sam Tevi will have an opportunity to prove they're ready to play in the fall. Coaches didn't like taking Lotulelei out of the game last year, and there is a school of thought that he got tired in some games. The bit of good news here is there likely will be more of a rotation in 2013.