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Spring football about 'understanding this defense inside and out' for Utes' inexperienced linebackers

SALT LAKE CITY — For the second year in a row, Utah enters spring football with question marks at linebacker.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham said as much Monday afternoon, when he stated — singling out the linebacker and offensive line position groups — that the Utes have some holes to fill.

Those holes are not insignificant either.

Utah lost seniors Chase Hansen and Cody Barton to graduation.

That duo was arguably the greatest pair of linebackers in program history.

Then there was the departure of linebackers coach Justin Ena.

Ena followed associate head coach/defensive tackle coach Gary Andersen to Utah State, where he has since taken over as defensive coordinator.

There was also the transfer of Chris Hart, and it was revealed Monday that neither Donavan Thompson nor Bryant Pirtle remain with the team.

Whittingham said that there is still a possibility that Thompson could rejoin the Utes — “We wish he would have stayed and he still may, I don’t want to count him out completely,” the newly extended head coach noted — but he declined to go into any specifics as to Thompson’s absence.

All of which is to say, there are holes aplenty at linebacker.

One of those, that of position coach, was filled in early January when Utah hired Colton Swan.

A Weber State alum with 15 years of coaching experience, Swan has made a quick and nearly seamless transition.

“This defense is super familiar to me,” said Swan. “I’ve run it before and coached it. There is a lot of carryover from Weber State and I was able to pick it up really quick.”

As for the holes on the field, Utah couldn’t have asked for a better stopgap option than graduate transfer Manny Bowen.

Utah’s first big win of the transfer portal era, Bowen brings with him a great deal of experience playing at the highest level of college football.

Utah Utes linebacker Manny Bowen (43) runs drills during spring training at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 4, 2019.
Utah Utes linebacker Manny Bowen (43) runs drills during spring training at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 4, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

As a Penn State Nittany Lion, Bowen appeared in 35 games from 2015-17 and had 134 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. His best year by far came in 2016 when he started 12 games and had 68 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.

“He has been there and done that,” Swan said. “He understands what it takes to be an all-conference linebacker.”

Experience is but a portion of what Bowen brings to the table, however.

“He really understands football,” said Swan. “His football IQ is very high. When you talk to him, even though he might not understand the terminology fully just yet, he understands what you are talking about. He understands what the offense is running, where we need to fit and how we need to do things. His football knowledge, his football IQ, is extremely high. The knowledge that he brings into a program like this is bar none.”

Understanding Utah’s defense and the terminology that goes with it will be the greatest challenge for Bowen, not to mention the rest of Utah’s linebackers.

It is therefore the singular focus of spring camp.

After all, only Francis Bernard — who is out for the entirety of spring football, as is redshirt freshman Quinn Fabrizio — saw any meaningful playing time at linebacker last season, and that only after transferring from BYU and joining the team during fall camp.

“I have some guys that do have playing experience, but they haven’t been totally in on a Utah defense,” said Swan. “Getting these guys adapted to what and how we do it here at Utah is the main goal. We have to know and understand this defense inside and out.”

That holds true for the rest of Utah’s linebacking corps, which includes Devin Lloyd, Sione Lund, Andrew Mata’afa, Moroni Anae, Samu Elisaia, BYU transfer Christian Folau, Dallin Pili and Kaden Simmonds.

“As a linebacker, you have to know and understand this defense. You have to put yourself and others in the position to be successful,” Swan said. “We have some young kids that are coming up that haven’t seen the field and we are going to spend a lot of time watching film, going over the playbook and talking football. You can’t do that enough. They have to understand what the ins and outs of a good linebacker are, how to get to a point where you are playing good sound football. That’s what spring football is about.”