The Utes think Mika Tafua, fresh off spreading the word on an LDS Church mission, will thrive as one of their ministers of havoc.
Havoc, of course, has been one of the trademarks of the Utah defense and a common refrain for coach Kyle Whittingham. Turnovers, defensive touchdowns, negative yardage plays — they all start with defensive linemen capable of disrupting an offense.
Tafua, a native of Hawaii who originally committed to BYU, joined the Utes in October after returning from his mission. He is now in the forefront of the competition for the starting defensive end spot vacated by Kylie Fitts’ graduation.
“He really hit the ground running and had an outstanding spring,” Whittingham said of Tafua. “He’s challenging for that starting end job opposite of Bradlee Anae. He’s right in the mix for that.”
A three-sport athlete (football, basketball and track) and an all-state outside linebacker at Kamehameha High School in 2014, Tafua received offers from several Pac-12 programs including Colorado, Oregon, USC and Washington before signing with BYU and then-coach Bronco Mendenhall during the 2015 signing period.
ESPN and 247Sports rated Tafua a four-star prospect out of high school, and 247Sports also tabbed him as the 19th-best outside linebacker in the nation.
Tafua already knew Utes defensive line coach Lewis Powell from when Powell coached the defensive line at the University of Hawaii. Still considering if he would enroll at BYU after returning from his mission, Tafua decided to visit Utah.
“Their defensive line has always been well-known, and so I knew that and I like that about it,” Tafua said. “I liked that everybody over here has a winning mentality. It’s a great vehicle to get you to the next level, and I just liked that it seemed like a big family. I wanted to feel comfortable where I went to school to play football.”
He was eligible to play in last fall, but instead decided to redshirt. The 6-foot-3 Tafua returned from his mission weighing 218 pounds, but he played in this past weekend’s scrimmage at approximately 250 pounds.
During portions of last weekend’s scrimmage, returning starter Bradlee Anae yelled from the sideline to recognize alignments or how to adjust to a particular shift. A couple times when Tafua came off the field, Anae pulled him aside. Tafua said he’s trying to take as much as he can from Anae, who started 10 games last year.
“During the [last] season it was good, I came over here and got back into shape and picked up a little bit of weight,” Tafua said. “Now, I’m just getting used to the speed of things, getting used to the plays, learning what I’m supposed to do.”
Powell described Tafua joining the program as “a huge get” with Fitts graduating.
While Powell said there are three or four guys in the mix to take over Fitts’ spot, Tafua has made progress quickly. Sophomore Maxs Tupai, junior Caleb Repp and junior college transfer Rex Jordan are also considered among the contenders, though Jordan finished last week’s scrimmage on the sideline with a protective boot on his foot.
Tafua’s ability to pack on weight in roughly six months has put him ahead of where the Utes expected he could be.
“We were thinking he was going to gain maybe 15 pounds and go up to 235 and maybe fall he’d go up to 245,” Powell said. “He gained so much weight, and that’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s determined, and he’s hungry and a kid that wants to do make some noise right away. Right now, he’s one of the guys that’s been really impressive this spring.”