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‘Grandpa’ Utupo earns increased playing time

| Thursday, November 20, 2014

For graduate senior defensive lineman Justin Utupo, coming back for a fifth year at Notre Dame had always been the plan.

“I just always knew I was going to come back, “ Utupo said. “As soon as I didn’t play my freshman year, I knew I would have an extra year of eligibility, and I knew I would use it to come back and play because this is where I committed. I wasn’t going to go anywhere else.”

His final season marks the culmination of an up-and-down career for Utupo. Since arriving at Notre Dame in 2010, the Lakewood, California, native hasn’t regularly been a part of Notre Dame’s defensive rotations. Although he has gotten consistent special teams playing time since his sophomore season in 2011, it was not until 2013 that Utupo registered his first tackle.

One of the big challenges of Utupo’s career has been being able to find a steady position on defense, he said. Utupo came out of high school as an accomplished defensive lineman but was  smaller than the typical Notre Dame defensive lineman. Utupo switched to the linebacker position during his sophomore and junior seasons.

Justin UtupoMichael Yu
Justin Utupo
Though Utupo was open to the change, he said his preference has always been to play on the defensive line.

“I like standing up and trying something new, but if you haven’t played linebacker in your high school years, it’s hard trying to pick it up at the next level, especially when it requires you to cover fast and good receivers,” Utupo said. “I liked it, but my natural position is always having my hand on the ground.”

In addition to the challenges of working to earn playing time and having to switch positions, Utupo dealt with a suspension for violating team rules at the beginning of the 2012 season.

“It definitely hurt,” he said. “I lost the chance to be in the two-deep at the beginning of the year. I bounced back though, which is what you have to do when you take a step back.”

After switching back to defensive line before the 2013 season, Utupo saw an increase in playing time that resulted in him registering the first seven tackles of his career. In particular, he was given more opportunities when fellow defensive linemen Sheldon Day, Louis Nix and Ishaq Williams battled injuries late in the season.

“Last year, I was kind of an as-needed guy,” he said. “When they went down, it’s the next man up. That’s what they preach here. There can’t be any drop-off between the first guy and the next guy that comes in. You have to produce at that same level.”

Though Utupo has still not been the beneficiary of consistent opportunities on the defensive line in the 2014 season, his playing time overall has increased, highlighted by  his first career start against Navy on Nov. 1.

In a 49-39 win over the Midshipmen, he recorded the first interception of his career. Among other highlights for Utupo this season was his performance in Notre Dame’s 31-0 victory over Michigan on Sept. 6, which included his first career sack.

Outside of his own performance on the field, Utupo said he has recognized the importance of being a leader, which results from being one of the few graduate students on the team.

“I feel like the grandpa of the group,” he said. “I’ve experienced the last four years, and I know what everyone else is going through and what they’re going to go through. It’s just nice for me being there with experience that I can help the younger guys and everything that they do, whether it’s on the field or off the field. I embrace being that grandpa figure.”

Away from the football field, Utupo received his undergraduate degree in anthropology last May. He currently is taking three graduate classes and said he hopes to be accepted into and receive his Master’s degree through the Alliance for Catholic Education.

When asked what he would consider his favorite moment of his career in a Notre Dame uniform, Utupo thought back to the 2011 season when he got on the field for the first time against Michigan.

“I’ll never forget that,” he said. “It was at the Big House; it was loud, and [overall] was such a big game.”

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