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Utah Utes football: Team stacked with experience at LB position

There's strength in numbers at linebacker for the University of Utah.

"That might be the deepest position on the team with the three starting seniors that we have coming back," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "We have a lot of depth at that position."

In addition to starters Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright and Kepa Gaison, there's a talented group of reserves featuring J.J. Williams, Chaz Walker, Matt Martinez, Boo Andersen, Mo Neal, Jamel King and converted quarterback Chad Manis.

"I think we've got some depth," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "It gives us a lot more room to breathe and decide where we can put some guys."

Flexibility is enhanced with the starters able to play any of the linebacker spots — rover, middle and stud.

"I think we are going to hit the ground running as far as the linebacking corps. We have a lot of experience," Wright said. "Coming off that Sugar Bowl win, we know what it takes to come in — day in and day out — to go undefeated."

Sylvester, Wright and Gaison combined for a whopping 183 tackles last season, including 20 in Utah's 31-17 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. "Hopefully we can live up to that this season," Wright said.

And there's no reason to think they won't. The center of Utah's defense has a blend of contributors.

"We have 10 or 11 people in our meeting room and only one really new person to the program," said Sylvester, who noted that a majority of the linebackers are underclassmen. "We've got depth, experience, and we're young and athletic. We're good to go."

After the first day of camp, Sylvester predicted bright things for the upcoming season.

"We've still got some kinks we've got to work out before Sept. 3," he said. "But I feel like we're going to be ready."

Wright agrees.

"We've got some good leadership at our position and good younger guys coming up," he explained. "So we've got a lot of potential this year and we're going to work hard in camp to get ourselves ready for this season."

As a show of unity, Utah's linebackers have opted for blond hairdos in camp. Some, including Sylvester, are sporting mohawk cuts.

"It was something fun to do," Wright said.

The group, as a whole, is determined to let the good times roll.

"We're all here just to make plays," he added.

Fortunately for the Utes, there's an abundance of playmakers at linebacker.

SYLVESTER (6-2, 230): Made the Mountain West's preseason all-conference team and is considered an early round NFL draft prospect. He made seven tackles, three sacks and recovered a fumble against Alabama.

WRIGHT (6-2, 235): Topped the Utes in tackles last season with 81. "Obviously I'd like to keep that title. But if Sly or one of my guys on defense does it I'll be the first to shake their hand," he said. "I'm just going to come in and work hard. I'd like to be an all-conference performer."

GAISON (5-10, 220): Has made the transition from walk-on punter to starting linebacker. He replaced the injured Nai Fotu in the Sugar Bowl and made six tackles, including two sacks. Gaison's development allowed Utah's coaching staff to move the talented Fotu (35 tackles) to his natural position on the defensive line this season.

MANIS (6-5, 230): The lone junior in the mix is making the move from quarterback.

KING (6-2, 229): Back in action after missing last season with a knee injury. The sophomore played in 11 games in 2007, making 11 tackles on special teams.

MARTINEZ (6-0, 226): The sophomore is healthy after two injury plagued seasons limited him to just four games. Currently listed as the back-up to Wright at middle linebacker.

NEAL (6-2, 221): Sophomore appeared in nine games last season and made nine tackles.

WALKER (5-11, 215): Former Davis High star appears on the most recent depth chart as the backup to Sylvester at rover. Appeared in all 13 games last season — making 18 stops, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage. The sophomore intercepted a pass in the win over Colorado State.

WILLIAMS (6-0, 225): Former starter is back from an LDS Church mission.

As a freshman in 2006, Williams played in 13 games (starting seven) and made 55 tackles. He also returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown against UNLV.

Sitake said Williams, currently the backup to Gaison at stud, is getting the rust off his game and doing well.

"You can't simulate game-time experience," Sitake said. "So having him back is going to be huge."

ANDERSEN (6-1, 230): The fastest linebacker has 4.5 speed in the 40. The redshirt freshman from Alta was a late signee in 2008 and earned a scholarship over the summer.

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com