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Patient lineman reaps rewards late in career

Joseph Monardo | Thursday, November 21, 2013


All good things come in time. Justin Utupo knows it well. 

The senior defensive lineman has seen it first-hand – what patience and time can do to improve a situation. Arriving at Notre Dame in 2010, the Lakewood, Calif., native had to endure a harsh winter, homesickness and playing in an unnatural position in his first year with the Irish.

“It was tough actually my first year. The winter was really bad. … It was like culture shock. I got homesick,” Utupo said.

“I played mostly defensive end in high school, but they wanted me to come in and play mostly linebacker because … my height, middle linebacker fit me better. And then playing defense line all your career and then trying to switch to linebacker, at the college level, is really hard. It’s a hard transition because you have to cover some of the fastest guys in the country at receiver and at running back. And it was hard for me to pick up on.”

While not seeing game action as a freshman, Utupo learned the importance of patience in waiting for his time to contribute on Saturdays.

“At first it was frustrating, because you go from being a key starter in high school, and you come here and you’re on the sideline watching and just waiting to play,” Utupo said. “You feel like you are the best and you can go contribute, but at the same time there are guys that have been here for four years and there’s guys that are out-competing you and being more productive on the field.”

Eventually, Utupo was able to make the transition back to his more natural position along the defensive line.

“I felt at the end of the day I was more comfortable with my hand on the ground and just going, not thinking,” he said. “Because at linebacker there’s so much to think about. At defensive line, you are really just going. Get off the ball and react.”

Utupo said one of the highlights of his career was his debut on special teams as a sophomore in the Big House. Notre Dame’s overtime victory over Stanford in Notre Dame Stadium last season also made the list, although Utupo jumped the gun in celebrating the victory when the deciding play came under official review.

“I ran on the field and I went and the first person I went to was [former Irish linebacker] Manti [Te’o] and I gave him a big old hug,” he said. “I looked around, and everyone had went back to the sideline because they had to review the play, so I felt so stupid being out there on the field. And I looked back and no one was there, so I had to run back on the sideline real quick.”

After seeing action in 23 contests over the past two seasons, Utupo has appeared in all 10 games this year and has registered six tackles. The anthropology major has grown into a comfort zone in the classroom, as well, but it again took patience for him to find his path.

“I was thinking of going into business, but I just don’t like math at all,” Utupo said. “And then I heard about anthropology from … [former Irish linebacker] Brian Smith, who was a senior my freshman year. … You learn about different cultures and it helps you interact with different people from different places because you get to learn that not everyone thinks the same way or does the same things. Everyone is different. And anthropology helps you realize that.”

Utupo lives with senior defensive linemen Kona Schwenke and Louis Nix and former Irish running back Cameron Roberson, who left the team following an injury. Utupo said he considers Schwenke “a brother,” but that he has bonds to several other teammates, mostly revolving around food. 

“He’s always cooking up something nice, like some Spam, eggs and rice, or whatever he thinks of that day. It’s nice to have someone who knows how to cook in the house and then someone who knows how to eat it all like Louis.

For the friends he has made, and for the experiences he has had, Utupo said his patience was well-served.

“At first Notre Dame was just like – when I first got here it was a big culture shock and I was like ‘Man, why did I come out here? The snow. The Golden Dome getting tired of looking at it,'” he said. “But now that I’m coming to a close and it’s my senior year, I’m looking at the Golden Dome and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m going to miss looking at this every day.’

“So I’m just going to miss being around a lot of focused people, being around people who care about you, who are hoping for the best for you on Saturdays, just my brothers on the team, the coaches, that’s really what I’ll miss the most, being around my family, being with guys like Kona, guys who are really like my family now. That’s what I’ll miss the most, just being around my teammates.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at [email protected]