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Utah's linebackers want to be 'smartest in the country'

Utah's Chase Hansen breaks up a pass to USC Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
Utah's Chase Hansen breaks up a pass to USC Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Immediately following Wednesday’s practice on the outdoor field at the University of Utah’s Eccles Sports Complex, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was swarmed, en masse, by media.

This wasn’t anything new for the veteran coach. It happens at the end of every practice that is open to the media, some days worse than others.

When the first question flew in the scrum, inquiring as to the general state of the team and any meaningful developments, Coach Whitt was quick to answer.

“Nothing major, other than Moroni Anae, one of our backup linebackers, is out for the season with an ankle injury.”

The second question zeroed in on the linebackers, as did the third. Before he knew it, Whittingham was teaching reporters about the difficulty of playing linebacker in Utah’s defense.

“You put the onus on the linebackers to get the front lined up,” Whittingham, a former BYU linebacker (1978-81), said. “There are more variables in their game, as far as what they have to do in schemes than any other position. There is just a lot more to playing that position.”

It isn’t often that Utah’s linebackers are singled out. Overshadowed by the historic success of the defensive line, something the team hopes to bring back this season, not to mention the newfound and deserved hype around the secondary, the linebacking corps can sometimes be taken for granted.

That shouldn’t be the case this season.

While the Utes lost their two-leading tacklers at the position from last season in Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli, the linebacking corps looks the best it has in a while or, at the very least, that’s how it is starting to feel.

“I think guys are doing a really good job, so far,” Justin Ena, Utah’s linebackers coach, said. “We’ve got some good kids here. The backers are smart. They know where to line up, where the gaps are and what coverages they have. They also know what their zone drops will become. I love what they do.”

Specifically, Ena was talking about the duo of Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, a pair of seniors who should see the majority of the time.

“Chase is awesome. He is a great kid and a smart football player that does it right,” said Ena. “And you’ve got Cody Barton, who’s rangy and athletic, just as athletic as Chase Hansen.”

Hansen, as is well known, is making the shift from safety to linebacker. Having already shifted from quarterback to safety in his collegiate career, however, the most recent change hasn’t been too difficult.

“I think (the biggest difference) is little things like run fits,” Hansen said. “As a middle linebacker, you have to fit inside or outside stuff. You have different keys and different steps. Things just happen a little bit quicker (than at safety).

As a backer everything counts. You take one downhill step and all of a sudden the attacker hooks you. It is just real little things, where when you are a safety you have a little bit more depth, a little more room for error.”

The little differences mean Hansen, already considered one of the more intelligent players on the team, has had to get that much smarter.

“Our goal is to be the smartest linebackers in the country,” said Hansen. “Smarter and faster, and to have the best motor. Those are our overarching goals. We want to be the smartest and the fastest linebackers. We want to be very rangy and have great motors. We want to be all over the field. Even if we are making mistakes we want to be flying around.”

Barton, for his part, was in lockstep with his running mate.

“First of all we want to be smart and we want to be quick,” said Barton. “We want to be fast and rangy. All those encompassing things, so when people talk about or think about the linebackers here, they are like that is those guys.”

The linebacker position group isn’t just Hansen and Barton, however, an important note considering the relative health, or lack thereof, of Hansen.

The Utes have Donovan Thompson, “who is just a tough bullet,” Ena said. “He’ll go a million miles an hour and knock the heck out of you.” Thompson played in all 13 games last year as a sophomore, starting five, and recorded 38 tackles.

Then there is Devin Lloyd, a redshirt freshman out of Chula Vista, California, who according to Ena, “ is having a good fall camp. He had a good spring camp as well. He is building upon that.”

Perhaps the most intriguing linebacker on the roster is Bryant Pirtle. One of the top JUCO linebackers in the country last season, Pirtle recently joined the team in fall camp and the results have been encouraging.

“Bryant Pirtle has come in and has done a really good job trying to learn the defense,” said Ena. “He is still brand new. Trying to figure it all out.”

“Love what he is doing so far,” added Whittingham. “He’s got a ways to go, there is a fairly steep learning curve at linebacker.”

Even Pirtle’s fellow ‘backers have been impressed.

“He looks pretty good,” Barton said. “He’s coming along. He just has to learn the D.”

As far as Ena is concerned those are his five guys, although players like Chris Hart and the always mythical Francis Bernard, if and when he joins the team, could eventually stake a claim for playing time.

“You’ve got the top three in Chase Hansen, Cody Barton and Donovan Thompson,” Ena said. “Then there is Devin and Bryant. We are still trying to find more building blocks behind those guys right now.

“I love what Chase, Cody, Donovan, Devin and Bryant do,” Ena said. “A lot of people call the linebackers the quarterbacks of the defense. They are the gel between the D-line and DB’s. Everything is communicated between them. They have to be great communicators to the DBs and also great communicators to the D-line. There is a lot of movement, talking. We’ve got to listen to both the back end and the front end, making sure everyone knows what they are supposed to do.

“I think these guys are doing a really good job with that. We’ve got some good kids here and we just have to keep getting smarter, become tougher football players and play with a little more edge. Fly around, be a menace to the offense.”