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Keep a close eye on the matchup between the Utah Ute linebackers and BYU Cougar running backs

The matchup between BYU’s running back corps and Utah’s replacements for leading tacklers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen will prove interesting.

Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) runs during Saturday night’s game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) runs during Saturday night’s game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The mystery matchup.

The BYU-Utah rivalry game will sorely miss two Ute defenders. Their replacements will face a trio of Cougar ballcarriers who make their first appearance in this series. It should prove interesting when they meet under the lights Thursday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Utah linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen were bookend distributors of terror to ballcarriers in 2018. They were fast, smart and superior tacklers. They plugged gaps with remarkable consistency, their reads often absolute. They could pressure quarterbacks and penetrate for tackles for loss. But mainly, they were simply big playmakers who rarely got caught out of position. And they’re gone.

Replacing Barton and Hansen will be veteran linebacker and BYU transfer Francis Bernard and sophomore Devin Lloyd.

Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard breaks up a pass to Northwestern Wildcats running back John Moten IV during NCAA football at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.
Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard breaks up a pass to Northwestern Wildcats running back John Moten IV during NCAA football at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Who they’ll tackle is kind of a mystery this week.

Former Ute linebacker Stevenson Sylvester explained to ESPN 700 radio this week it may not matter. In his opinion BYU looked like a team with Division II talent compared to Utah.

The Cougars will likely deploy Lopini Katoa and graduate transfers Ty’Son Williams (South Carolina) and Emmanuel Esukpa (Rice) in some kind of position by committee early this season. It will be a first for all of them to play in this game.

It would do BYU’s running backs well to take advantage of the changeover in Barton and Hansen’s absence. And Utah would benefit greatly if those asked to fill in just reload and step up.

BYU running backs coach AJ Steward said after Wednesday’s scrimmage in LaVell Edwards Stadium he is taking his decision on a starter right to the wire next week. He wants all candidates for the starting job to be on edge and engaged. He’ll likely make an announcement the day before the game in the team room.

In the meantime, he likes what he’s seen out of his group.

“I’m just excited about the improvement. We could see it day to day and that’s a good thing. These guys have bought in. Obviously, we’re not ready to play a game (Wednesday) and there are things we can clean up, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction. The biggest thing is knowledge of the playbook and second is the intricacies of playing running back technique and assignments and learning to react to situations.”

In last year’s rivalry matchup, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson was the team’s leading rusher with 14 carries for 91 yards. The leading back was converted linebacker Matt Hadley in his first start and he carried 21 times for a net 64 yards and two touchdowns. Hadley left the game in the third quarter with a leg injury from a hit by Hansen after he had carried the ball past the line of scrimmage.

“It was blocked really well. Chase just read it nicely. It could’ve been a huge play for us,” Hadley said.

Utah Utes linebacker Cody Barton (30) and Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) gang up to stop Brigham Young Cougars running back Matt Hadley (2) at the goal line as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24,
Utah Utes linebacker Cody Barton (30) and Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) gang up to stop Brigham Young Cougars running back Matt Hadley (2) at the goal line as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24,
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Barton led the Ute defense with 116 total tackles, 68 of them solo. Hansen was a close second with 114 total tackles, 70 of them unassisted.

That’s a lot of consistent work on the nation’s 13th-ranked rush defense.

A year ago BYU opened up the season with a new offensive coordinator, pass game coordinator, running backs coach, receivers coach and offensive line coach. It was the first spring and fall they’d worked together, and the first game they’d called together came against Arizona from the Pac 12.

That day in Arizona Stadium in Tucson, the Cougars won 28-23 with Tanner Mangum at QB.

Much has changed in a year. The offensive staff has chalked up mileage together. And unlike the beginning of last year, Wilson is the starting QB.

“It’s been great. We have a great group of coaches and selfless guys on our staff,” said Steward. “They are really good football coaches, but even better men. So, we are all able to kind of check our pride at the door when we walk in there and be open to new ideas and new thoughts and we coach each other’s positions and add our two cents. We are a tight-knit group as a staff and as a team, just where we need to be.

“We have a genuine respect and love for each other and we’re all open to learning. Kalani (Sitake) wants our team to have an atmosphere of love and learning and we exemplify that.”

As for his decision to extend that competition and time to name his starters, Steward says there are still some situations he’ll put players in to evaluate and once he finishes, he’ll be closer to making that call.

“I like keeping an edge amongst our guys.”

Bernard and Lloyd, meet …, whomever.