When looking at the University of Utah's football program, the best memories are their two BCS bowl wins, the first under former coach Urban Meyer and the second coming in current coach Kyle Whittingham's fourth season at the helm. Whittingham won five bowl games in his first five years but in the four years after that, the Utes have won just one bowl, lost another and missed the postseason in the last two seasons.
Utah's 5-7 season in 2013 was due to an absence of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but they consistently boast one of the best defensive programs in the country. Numerous NFL players played their college ball in Salt Lake City, including our own Eric Weddle. Every year it seems that the NFL welcomes a new defensive Ute to its ranks, and the Chargers made what was considered by many to be their best undrafted free agent signing when they inked Tenny Palepoi to the roster.
Palepoi, a junior college transfer, made the most of his two seasons in Utah, morphing into one of the best nose tackles in the country. Palepoi was projected to be drafted in the fifth or sixth round, and for a player of his talent to drop all the way out of the draft was surprising.
Unlike most other rookies, Palepoi is married and has two children. His father played for the Samoan rugby team and his brother played four years in the NFL, playing with three teams.
With the Chargers, Palepoi is trying to crack a defensive line group that shows promise, but has yet to meet potential. So what are Palepoi's chances of making the Chargers? Let's start with his collegiate career.
Coming to Utah from the junior college ranks, Palepoi got a chance to contribute and capitalized. He played in all 12 12 games in 2012,. making two starts, and collected a respectable 21 tackles and two sacks from the nose tackle position. Many snaps that would've gone to Palepoi instead went to star lineman Star Lotulelei. When Lotulelei left Utah to become a first round NFL draft pick, the starting nose tackle job was handed to Palepoi with big shoes to fill, and he filled in admirably. Voted a captain his senior year, Palepoi started all 12 games on his way to a second team All-Pac-12 selection. His production spiked up too, going from 21 tackles in 2012 to 53 in 2013. Palepoi was a force in the middle, racking up 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss.
At 6-foot-1, 298 pounds, Palepoi is large enough to force double teams in the trenches but he has quickness and agility that allows him to push past defenders. He possesses great closing speed and is a sure tackler. His body control affords him the ability to finesse his way past defenders instead of relying on brute strength.
Check out this play from Utah's blowout win over Weber State last year. The Wildcats lined up in the triple option, but Palepoi wrecked the play by destroying his blocker and engulfing the Weber State quarterback. Watch Palepoi, #91, burst through the line and push past his blocker with ease before crunching the QB.
Palepoi is able to use his strength to push back the blocker, then uses his feet and agility to get past him and to the quarterback.
While his average size for a nose tackle didn't hinder his collegiate production because of his athletic ability, Palepoi doesn't have the size to be a starter or even a featured role player at nose tackle in the NFL, with short arms and a small frame. If he doesn't beat the blocker off the snap, he doesn't have the arm extension to gain separation and isn't strong enough to push around an NFL lineman.
Palepoi's biggest issue is where he would play. He isn't strong enough to play nose tackle in the NFL, and the Chargers drafted Ryan Carrethers to play that position anyways. The defensive ends seem to be nearly locked up as well, not allowing much room in the group for Palepoi to break through.
Chances Tenny Palepoi makes the final roster: 15%. He'll get his chances in preseason and it would be a victory if the Chargers were to sign him to the practice squad, but Palepoi isn't good enough yet to be one of the best 53 men on the team. Watch for the Chargers to move him around the line a bit in the preseason, experimenting with him in different looks and schemes. Give him a year on the practice squad to get stronger and learn how to disengage from NFL blocks, and he could be a candidate to come into 2015 and really contribute.