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Monday, April 2, 2012
Biggest shoes to fill: Utah

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

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.

Big shoes: Offensive tackles Tony Bergstrom & John Cullen

We have two sets of shoes here for multiple reasons. First, replacing both offensive tackles is always a concern. Those guys protect the edges from attack. Second, both these guys earned All-Pac-12 honors, Bergstrom on the first-team and Cullen on the second. But the third reason is the ugly secret. The Utes' line didn't do that well last season. Sure, it opened holes big enough for running back John White to rank 11th in the nation with 116.85 yards rushing per game. But the Utes only ranked eighth in the Pac-12 and 80th in the nation in rushing with 137.6 ypg. But that's not the worst news. Not only did the Utes struggle to throw the ball after starting quarterback Jordan Wynn got hurt, they did a terrible job preventing sacks. They gave up 33 sacks, and their 2.54 per game ranked 95th in the nation. Yet, even that doesn't tell the whole story. Cover your eyes, Utes fans. Utah yielded 33 sacks on just 302 passing plays. Yeah, that means they surrendered a sack on nearly 11 percent of their passing plays. For comparison, Washington State gave up the most sacks in the conference: 40. But the Cougars only gave up sacks on 8.1 percent of their passing plays.

Stepping in: Offensive tackles Daniel Nielson & Percy Taumoelau

While these are the two leading guys, there might be some plot twists ahead, because things don't feel settled. Nielson, a 6-foot-6, 317-pound redshirt freshman, replaces Bergstrom on the right side. Taumoelau, a 6-4, 315-pound junior, steps in for Cullen on the left. Nielson is smart (he was physics Student of the Year at Hurricane (Utah) High). He also is a former state wrestling champion. And he was around for 2011 spring practices, so he's not as green as most redshirt freshmen. A minor knee injury last week, however, had 6-6, 316-pound junior Kapua Sai running with the first team. Taumoelau has seen action the past two seasons, but has yet to log a start. How to look at these guys? Promising but unproven is probably the safest way. The same goes for the reinforcements: Utah signed nine offensive linemen in February, including three from junior colleges. It's possible -- likely? -- that some of those guys could push for playing time, though not necessarily at the tackle spots.

You can check out the rest of the "Big Shoes" series here.