Football

Utah’s Nate Orchard has shown growth on and off the field

Utah defensive lineman Nate Orchard at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis
Utah defensive lineman Nate Orchard at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis AP

You would have been hard-pressed to find a player more excited — and grateful — to be at the 2015 NFL Combine than Utah edge rusher Nate Orchard.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Orchard, who racked up 84 tackles and 18 1/2 sacks as a senior, was 13 years old, on the verge of being homeless and headed, he says, down the wrong path.

“I didn’t imagine myself in this position — I was a kid who was lost,” said Orchard, 22. “No way in heck did I think I’d be here today. I always dreamed of it, but I went off the road. I went astray and wasn’t doing the right things.”

Orchard — who was born Napa’a Lilo Fakahafua — moved from Inglewood, Calif., to Utah when he was 10 years old to live with his brother’s family because his mother could no longer care for him.

But when his brother was suddenly faced with eviction, Orchard moved in with his AAU coach Dave Orchard, his wife, Katherine, and their family in Salt Lake City.

Now, nearly 10 years later, Nate — who took Orchard’s last name in appreciation for what he and his family did for him — is on the verge of becoming an NFL player, a reality he says would not have been possible were it not for the patience they had while raising him throughout high school.

“They mean everything to me — they’re my parents,” Orchard said. “They’re folks who didn’t give up on me when things got hard, when I was a stubborn kid and ran away so many times just because I had chores and I had a curfew.”

Orchard initially struggled with the structure his new family provided, but he has matured since then. A team captain at Utah, he is married to his high school sweetheart, Maegan, and the couple has a 1-year-old daughter they named Katherine after the woman who helped raise him.

“I’m married, I’ve got a little girl, I’m doing all the right things,” Orchard said. “Just taking care of my family is my main priority. I’m ready to be the best at the next level.”

As much growth as Orchard has displayed as a person, the same can be said for the amount he’s grown as a player. He arrived at Utah as a three-star recruit, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound receiver, — he caught 58 passes for 1,351 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns as a high school senior — and was quickly moved to the defensive side of the ball after a conversation with head coach Kyle Whittingham.

“Coach Whitt said ‘Hey, put on 60 pounds and you can go to the NFL, I promise you that,’” Orchard said. “He was right.”

Orchard eventually bulked up to 255 before into his senior year, thanks to a combination of Utah’s training staff and good home cooking.

“That’s being married,” Orchard joked. “A lot of good food.”

Orchard, a three-year starter, had his best year as a senior, when he won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s best defensive end, topping the likes of Southern California’s Leonard Williams, Clemson’s Vic Beasley Jr. and Missouri’s Shane Ray, all of whom are projected to be first-round picks this year.

Orchard seems to be slotted as a second- or third-round guy, likely due to his overall lack of bulk (despite his weight) and occasional struggles against the run, though Orchard insists he’ll be able to bulk up to around 260 pounds.

“I’ve got tons of growth — that’s in my Polynesian blood right there,” Orchard said. “I’m black and Tongan. That’s the next step to my game, improving against the run. If you can stop the run and get to the quarterback, I think you can have a long career in the NFL. There’s a lot of things I need to fine-tune in my game to be the best I want to be.”

Regardless, Orchard’s quickness and big-time motor already stand out on tape — just like they did in one-on-one pass-rush drills at the Senior Bowl in January — and he caught the eye of a number of NFL teams, including the Chiefs, who interviewed Orchard at the combine.

“My goal going into (the Senior Bowl) was to turn some heads, and I think I did that,” Orchard said. “I was going against the top guys, and I wanted to prove to these scouts I could compete against these top guys and that my pass rush during the season wasn’t just a fluke.”

And for a guy who used to be a receiver, Orchard certainly seems to really enjoy is new vocation of sacking the quarterback, too.

“That’s your captain, that’s your leader, that’s your everything right there,” Orchard said, breaking into a grin. “That’s the head of the snake — who’s my man who said that, Deacon Jones?”

Indeed. And While Orchard spent his career as a 4-3 defensive end at Utah, he doesn’t anticipate having any issues adjusting to a 3-4 scheme like the one the Chiefs play.

“I’ve had my hand on the ground for the last 10 years, so I think that’s probably where I’m most comfortable,” Orchard said. “But a transition to outside linebacker wouldn’t be a problem just because I’ve been dropping into coverage a lot. It’s something I’m used to.

“Whatever the scheme is, I’ll adapt to it,” Orchard said. “I’ll definitely be good for whatever team drafts me.”

And when draft day rolls around, you can be sure that it will be a good day for Orchard, a young man who has thrived thanks to the love and support of his adoptive family.

“They didn’t give up on me and they love me unconditionally,” Orchard said. “I’m forever indebted to them.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TerezPaylor.

Inside the 2015 NFL Draft: outside linebackers

From now until the draft begins on April 30, The Star will look at each position.

Ranking the top prospects: Find Terez A. Paylor’s detailed evaluations and rankings of the top 15 outside linebackers at KansasCity.com.

What the Chiefs look for: High-end edge rushers in the 3-4 defense need to have a good first step and a knack for getting to the quarterback. They also need to have the discipline and strength to adequately set the edge vs. the run. Comfort in pass coverage is a bonus.

Chiefs’ needs: The Chiefs boast one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos at outside linebacker in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. They also have 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford waiting in the wings. Houston has been designated with the franchise tag but has not signed it, and it remains unclear when he will do so or if he will sign a long-term deal with the Chiefs. The Chiefs also have two young developmental edge rushers waiting in the wings in Josh Martin and Dezman Moses, but a team can never have enough pass rushers.

Sleeper: Michigan’s Frank Clark did himself no favors with his November arrest for domestic violence, which is a major red flag in today’s NFL. Clark, who was also suspended by Michigan earlier in his career for allegedly stealing a computer, could be taken off the boards by several teams because of those issues. But if he can convince teams he’s grown up, some team has a chance to get a steal.

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