Is Devin Lloyd best defender in modern era of Utah football? His coach sure thinks so
Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist, has been turning heads all season and collecting a slew of awards and honors of late
Kyle Whittingham has coached dozens of outstanding defensive players since joining Utah’s program as an assistant in 1994 and he’s sent many to the NFL.
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But in his mind, linebacker Devin Lloyd stands above the rest.
Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist, has been collecting a slew of awards and honors lately, including the Pac-12’s Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year and CBS Sports All-America First Team. He’s also a Reese’s Senior Bowl invitee.
The past two seasons, Lloyd has led the Utes’ defense and consistently made key plays.
For example, in last Friday’s 38-10 victory over Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game, he returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown to give Utah a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter. It marked his second pick-six of the season.
“Devin is a special football player. He’s the best defender that’s ever come through the University of Utah, at least in the modern era,” Whittingham said. “He’s going to be, most likely, the highest drafted defensive player that we’ve had.”
Lloyd arrived at Utah in 2017 and redshirted. After becoming a starter on the Utes defense in 2019, he starred during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Lloyd could have entered the draft but decided to return for one more season.
“More than anything, I want to leave with a championship, with a nice little ring on my finger. Hopefully a couple of rings,” the 6-foot-3, 232-pound junior from Chula Vista, California, said last spring. “I want to bring everyone along with me, too. I know this team wants to be great. I’m not the only one on this team that wants to be great.
“My passion for the game as well — the NFL isn’t going anywhere,” he continued. “I just want to cement a legacy here at the university and do a lot of great things here. I knew I had an opportunity to leave but it wouldn’t have been up to my expectations as far as the draft. I just felt like it was all around the best decision to come back and invest another year.”
Certainly, Lloyd accomplished all of that in 2021.
“His impact and value cannot be overstated. He is such a great leader, such a pure talent. He could have come out last year and been a first- or second-round draft choice,” Whittingham said. “He’s probably played his way into the top 10 or 12 of the first round. That’s what I’m hearing.
“He came back and he was a man on a mission. He wanted to win the championship, he wanted to be an All-American. He had these goals. We sat down and he told me all of his goals about a year ago when he was making that decision. He said, ‘I’m coming back and here’s why and here’s what I want to accomplish.’ And he’s checked every box so far.”
Lloyd ranks fourth in Utah history with 43 career tackles for loss, needing one to tie Hunter Dimick (44 from 2013-16) for the No. 3 spot. He’s third in the Pac-12 in tackles per game (8.3) and total tackles (99). Lloyd is also No. 2 nationally with 22 TFLs. His eight sacks leads all Pac-12 linebackers.
“He’s a self-made guy. He came to us as a safety and a wide receiver out of high school and we projected him as a linebacker,” Whittingham said. “He became, through sheer hard work and determination one of the top linebackers in the country. His versatility allows us to use him as an inside ’backer spot, where he’s most comfortable. We can also bring him off the edge. He’s a pass rush force.
“He’s a guy that can really do it all. He’s got the size, the strength, the speed and the agility that all the big-time players have. He’s meant the world to us. He won the MVP in the Pac-12 championship game. Very well deserving of that.”
Lloyd has one more game for No. 11 Utah — on New Year’s Day against No. 6 Ohio State. Then he’ll begin preparing in earnest for the NFL draft next spring.
What does Whittingham think of Lloyd’s pro prospects?
“I see exactly what the NFL looks for in linebackers,” he said. “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.”