When Utah opened the 2022 season at Florida last September, the defense took the field without Jacksonville Jaguars first-round draft pick and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Devin Lloyd, as well as Nephi Sewell, who currently plays for the New Orleans Saints.

“Depth is a big benefit and we feel like we’ll have it at that spot. You’ve got smart, tough guys and they kind of run the show. They’re the main communicators in this defense.” — Utah DC Morgan Scalley on linebackers heading into 2023 season

The Utes played with a relatively inexperienced group in their defensive system — Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, Karene Reid and true freshman Lander Barton.

Utah’s defense experienced some growing pains in that 29-26 setback, including 27 missed tackles. Coach Kyle Whittingham described the overall defensive performance against the Gators as “sloppy,” “soft” and “abysmal.”

Of course, the Utes will have the opportunity to avenge that loss to Florida in their season-opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Aug. 31.

And Utah will be more seasoned at the linebacker position this time around.

“Definitely more experienced,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said. “We started the Florida game with Mohamoud Diabate, who was a transfer seeing his first action in our defense. Lander Barton was a true freshman.” 

During spring drills, the Utes’ linebackers are improving. 

“Lander has made, as you would expect from his freshman to his sophomore year, a ton of progress,” Scalley said. “He’s gotten stronger in the weight room, he’s faster, he knows the defense. You’ve got Karene and Lander. You’ve got Justin Medlock, who’s really coming into his own.”

This summer, Utah will also welcome Stanford transfer linebacker Levani Damuni. Linebacker Sione Fotu, who started as a freshman in 2020, will be returning home from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“Depth is a big benefit and we feel like we’ll have it at that spot,” Scalley said. “You’ve got smart, tough guys and they kind of run the show. They’re the main communicators in this defense.”

Linebackers coach Colton Swan is pleased with what he’s seen from Reid and Barton this spring. 

“I’m returning two guys that have quite a bit of experience and one guy that’s got a lot of experience and is a team captain in Karene Reid,” he said. “He and Lander Barton are two guys that have come off of last season that accrued quite a few reps and they look phenomenal so far. They are kind of masters of the defense, controlling what’s going on out there on the field. They’re running exactly what we need to get done from a defensive standpoint.”

Reid recorded 72 tackles last season, including 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, one interception, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble and two pass breakups last season.

“He’s had more reps than anybody in the room. He started the last two years and he’s played three years for me,” Swan said of Reid. “Where can we get better with fine-tuning those reps and what can we do to take you to the next level? His knowledge of the game has expanded immensely.

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“He not only knows what he’s doing, but he knows what everybody is doing with the offense included in that. That’s when you get to become a great player — when you understand what you and your defense are doing and how it fits to the offense and how you can utilize that information to make plays.”

Barton tallied 46 tackles, including 8.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one pass breakup, three quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. 

“When you’ve played in a lot of reps as a freshman and you’ve been very good at it — he was our newcomer defensive player of the year — he’s got to do a really good job of fine-tuning all the little techniques to make him great,” Swan said. “When you’re a good player and you do a lot of good things naturally, you have to take your time, look at your film and figure out exactly what it is that you can fine-tune and evolve your play to the next level.”

Other linebackers getting reps this spring include Medlock, Hayden Furey, Josh Calvert and Helaman Ofahengaue. 

“Those guys have done a good job of coming in and competing and developing and fighting for that starting spot,” Swan said. “The group is pretty well-rounded and they’re pushing one another from top to bottom.”

Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura, left, tries to escape the grasp of Stanford linebacker Levani Damuni Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. The former Cardinal defensive captain will play his final season of college football for the Utes this fall. | Young Kwak, Associated Press