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Utes excited about experienced linebacker corps for 2017

SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, one of the main areas of concern for the University of Utah football team was the linebacker position where the Utes had virtually zero experience at the start of the season.

One year later, the linebacking corps is looking like it will be one of the strengths of the Ute defense. In fact, the Utes have so many options at linebacker that some very good players may not be able to see the field much this season.

“It’s a nice situation right now, a lot better than it was last year,” says third-year coach Justin Ena. “We’re expecting a lot from the linebacking corps.”

Last year, Ena had to replace an experienced group of Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham with three players who had a grand total of eight reps from the year before. Those came from Sunia Tauteoli, who played in just three games at linebacker upon joining the Utes after a year at Snow College.

Tauteoli was joined by Cody Barton, a special teams player in 2015, and Kavika (David) Luafatasaga, a four-star recruit from Arizona Western College, originally from Hawaii. By the end of the season, all three had seen starting action in the Utes’ two-linebacker set with Barton ending up second on the team in tackles with 66, Tauteoli fourth with 57 and Luafatasaga sixth with 52 tackles

The three linebackers bring different strengths to the position. Tauteoli is he prototypical middle linebacker at 6 feet, 227 pounds, while Luafatasaga stands 6-4 and weighs 235 pounds. Barton is in between the two at 6-2 and is the fastest of the linebacking group with speed in the “mid-4.5s” according to Ena.

Tauteoli, who went to nearby East High School before going to Snow, made an immediate impact as he picked off a Taysom Hill pass against BYU on the first play of the game and turned it into a 41-yard touchdown return.

“I love Sunia — he’s doing a fantastic job at being a leader,” said Ena. “He’s a hard-nosed football player, striking people. I’m really impressed by what he’s doing — he knows the system very well, he’s putting everybody in the right place, he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Luafatasaga got off to a slow start in 2016 because he didn’t become eligible until just before the start of camp and it took him awhile to rolling.

“Last year I came here out of shape and was dropped right into the defense at the beginning of fall camp,” he said. “They threw me right in, the coaches didn’t take it easy on me and they wanted me to learn it fast.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham says Luafatasaga was a different player by the end of the season and he expects big things this year.

“A light switch seemed to go on for him toward the end of the year and I thought he was playing at an all-conference level at the end of the season,” Whittingham said.

“I’m excited about him,” adds Ena. “It was a learning curve for him. He came in later and took a while to get in shape. But he did some really good things. He’s long and strong and runs very well. He just needs to play like a man on fire.”

Ena says that while Barton is the fastest of the linebackers, he wants him to be a little more physical this year. “He’s got something to prove on being physical, making the plays when the play presents itself. If he does that, he’s going to be really good.”

Besides those three, Ena is enthusiastic about Donavan Thompson, a sophomore from Miami, who played in eight games, mostly on special teams, getting 12 tackles on the year. “He’s a tough guy, in the mold of Sunia Tauteoili and I think he’s going to do some special things too. He’s a tough kid, a hard-nosed football player.”

Two other players in the mix at linebacker are Cody Ippolito, a graduate transfer who had 11 starts for Arizona over an injury-plagued five years and Devin Lloyd, a 6-3, 219-pounder from Chula Vista, California, who Whittingham singled out for his early play.

So with just two linebackers being able to play in Utah’s 4-2-5 scheme, who will see most of the time this season?

Obviously, the three who combined for all the starts last season are the front-runners, but Ena says he’ll put the best players on the field.

“The best two are going to play most of the time,” he said. “That’s what’s nice about having fall camp — you find out who the best players are. I will always play the best, and we’ll find out who they are and they’ll be lined up against North Dakota.”