As a sophomore, Joe Jiannoni won a battle for the starting job at middle linebacker. He wound up making 73 tackles, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage as Utah went 7-5 and won the Emerald Bowl.

This year, a new challenge awaits the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder from California.

Jiannoni is moving to rover, filling a void left by the graduation of Mountain West Conference tackles leader Spencer Toone.

"I love it. They're expecting me to do the same as Spencer, and that's what I expect to do. I hope to make my game better," Jiannoni said. "I'm excited about it. It's a good opportunity. I thought I definitely ought to take it, and I'm glad I did."

Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said Jiannoni is making a smooth transition to rover.

"Getting Joe out there gives us a guy that's got a bunch of experience," Andersen said. "We want a guy that can really run in that position."

In Utah's scheme, the rover is expected to get over the top and make tackles. The other linebackers are assigned to fill specific holes.

"It's pretty much just the opposite of the other guys. It's pretty easy to catch on," Jiannoni said. "I pretty much know everything already, so I've caught on to it pretty good."

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham isn't surprised.

"Joe is our fastest linebacker and typically rover is the position that you need the rangiest athlete at," he said. "Spencer's led the team in tackles the last two years at that position. That position is designed to be the most efficient, productive position on the field. We feel that Joe fits that bill."

The move has sparked a spirited competition in spring ball. Three Utes — Chet Blasucci, Loma Olevao and Taylor Miller — are locked in a battle to replace Jiannoni at middle linebacker.

Each candidate is performing well this spring.

"By no means has anyone separated themselves yet," Whittingham said. "They're all still getting reps, and it probably won't be until the end of spring ball, maybe into two-a-days, before that position gets solidified."

Same goes for the stud linebacker spot. Whittingham said juniors Kyle Brady and Malakai Mokofisi give Utah a good one-two punch. Both have starting experience.

The abundance of quality linebackers has created what Andersen considers a "perfect situation" for the Utes.

"These kids are making it hard, and to me competition is what makes a great football team," said Andersen, who is hopeful Saturday's scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium (9:50 a.m.) will reveal something and lead to things becoming a lot more clear over the next few weeks.

Andersen, however, fully expects the competitions to continue into fall camp.

ON THE FIELD: Whittingham and his staff have definite objectives for today's scrimmage — the first of three scheduled this spring.

"First of all we need to continue to see separation as far as the depth chart is concerned and then try to get things solidified — or started to solidify," Whittingham said. "We need to see people making plays."

The coaching staff will also be watching for solid fundamentals such as proper blocking and tackling techniques, as well as throwing and catching.

"Just doing all the little things that make a difference," said Whittingham, who noted that the situational scrimmage could feature as many as 100 plays.

As is the case with all practices this spring, the public is invited to attend.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com