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‘You’re witnessing greatness’: With Devin Lloyd anchoring the defense, Utes are in good hands

According to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, Lloyd’s pick-six at Stanford stands as one of the most impressive defensive plays he’s seen during his time at Utah

Utah’s Devin Lloyd scores on a pick-six during game against the Cardinal in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Utah’s Devin Lloyd scores on a pick-six during game against Stanford in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. According to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, the play may one of the most impressive defensive plays he’s seen during his time at Utah.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

During Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s playing and coaching career, he’s witnessed plenty of amazing plays.

The latest came last Friday during the Utes’ 52-7 victory at Stanford. Early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Devin Lloyd snatched quarterback Jack West’s pass out of the air at the two-yard line, gathered it and glided into the end zone for a touchdown.

It may have been the shortest pick-six in Utah football history but it also may have been one of the most impressive.

“It was incredible,” Whittingham said. “I saw it happen in real time and watched the replay and still couldn’t believe that he could have the reflexes and the athleticism to make that catch, and then find his way into the end zone. It was only a couple yards, but that’s who he is. He’s a big-play guy.”

Even Lloyd was surprised by what he did.

“I was kind of in shock obviously honestly. I was like, I can’t believe it. Yeah, it felt really good to get back in the end zone,” he said. “Being a former receiver, you know, I love getting in the end zone, and on the defensive side, so always feels good to get back in there.”

A few days later, Whittingham was asked about the interception again.

“When it happened in real time, I said, ‘What just happened?’ because it was so bang-bang,” he said. “Then you look at the replay board and it’s still like, ‘How did he do that?’ The ball was four feet away and thrown hard. He was able to have the hand-eye coordination and the awareness and the anticipation to make that play.”

Where does that pick-six rank of the many he’s seen over the years?

“It’s got to rate in the top two, three or four that I’ve ever experienced here at Utah,” Whittingham said.

But that memorable interception wasn’t all that Lloyd accomplished against the Cardinal. He recorded a career-high five tackles for loss (19 yards) and one sack as part of his nine tackles.

For his effort, Lloyd was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for the third time in 2021.

No doubt, Lloyd, a Butkus Award and Bednarik Award semifinalist, has turned in another spectacular season.

“It’s a prestigious honor if he can continue on and win that,” Whittingham said. “But to get this far is a tribute to his hard work and everything he’s put into this program through the years.”

In addition to his three interceptions, Lloyd leads the Pac-12 and is No. 2 nationally in tackles for loss with 18 and is tied for No. 3 in PFF’s linebacker grades (90.3 overall). Lloyd has tallied 80 tackles and seven sacks.

Utah’s Devin Lloyd reacts after sacking Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Lloyd leads the Pac-12 and is No. 2 nationally in tackles for loss with 18 and is tied for No. 3 in PFF’s linebacker grades (90.3 overall).
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior from Chula Vista, California, is expected to be one of the first linebackers off the board in next spring’s NFL draft.

What does Whittingham, who has sent numerous defensive players into the NFL, think of Lloyd’s pro prospects?

“I see exactly what the NFL looks for in linebackers. He’s got the size, the speed, the explosion, the athleticism, the intelligence — everything you see in those elite linebackers in the NFL, Devin possesses them,” he said. “He may have had his best game this past Friday night. He was outstanding. That interception that he made was incredible. He’s leading the league in sacks and tackles-for-loss and somewhere in the top three or four in total tackles. He’s having an exceptional year.”

Besides the pick-six against Stanford, Lloyd’s other two interceptions this season were diving catches, one against Weber State and one against Washington State — showing off his sure hands.

“I have a lot of respect for Devin. He’s a hard worker. Nobody can question how hard he works. His leadership is great,” said Utes wide receiver Solomon Enis. “It’s crazy to see someone play like that. But when he had the pick, it was like, ‘What else can he not do?’ You’re witnessing greatness. At the same time, it’s like, he really had a pick on the two-yard line and scored it. It’s amazing to watch it.”

How does Enis assess Lloyd’s skills as a receiver?

“He always talks smack that he played receiver in high school. We always give him crap that he’s a linebacker now,” Enis said. “Once you’ve been in that position, those skills and attributes carry on. It’s going to stick with you. He can do a little bit of everything and it’s shown it this year. I’m happy for him.”

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) makes a diving interception during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
Utah’s Devin Lloyd makes a diving interception during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Weber State in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Whittingham said Lloyd’s experience as a wideout has certainly been a benefit.

“Without a doubt that helps him out. Ball skills come more into play as a DB than a linebacker. But he’s maximized pretty much every opportunity he’s had to make an interception because he does have outstanding hands. That stems from his experience as a receiver way back when.”

Of course, Lloyd’s value to Utah’s program isn’t limited to his stats. His leadership has been a positive influence on all of his teammates.

“We lean on him a ton. It’s the whole team. He’s a great leader. He pulls people along. He’s compelling. He’s extremely committed,” said linebackers coach Colton Swan. “But it’s not just all about him and him being great. He’s trying to make this team great. He’s trying to make the linebackers great.”

What makes Lloyd great?

“He plays within the structure and framework of the defense. But we utilize him in a lot of different ways. You saw us bring him off the edge quite a bit so far this season,” Whittingham said. “He’s got great size. He runs like a deer. He’s instinctive, he’s got a long wingspan and you see him tip balls quite often, particularly in pass rush.

“He’s a playmaker. He’s a guy that when there’s a play to be made, he almost always makes it. He’s an absolute football junkie and student of the game. He watches as much film during the course of a week as anybody we’ve ever had here.”

Lloyd’s pick-six against Stanford will forever stand as one of his top highlights during his stellar career at Utah.