Aside from his distinguished 35-year coaching career, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knows all about middle linebackers. He’s intimately familiar with what makes a player great at that position. 

That’s because he was a stellar collegiate middle linebacker himself.  

As a player at BYU, Whittingham was a team captain and earned first-team All-Western Athletic Conference and WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1981. 

“He’s a talent. He’s got everything you look for in a middle linebacker. He’s 6-foot-3, 235 pounds and runs a 4.5-something 40 and he’s a student of the game. He’s got a burning desire to be great. He’s put in the time and the work and the effort ever since he got here and now it’s paying off for him. I’m proud of him and it’s great to see him on that short list of Butkus Award finalists.” — Kyle Whittingham on Devin Lloyd

On Monday, Devin Lloyd, the Utes’ standout middle linebacker, was named one of five finalists for the 36th annual Butkus Award, emblematic of the nation’s top collegiate linebacker. 

“He’s a talent. He’s got everything you look for in a middle linebacker. He’s 6-foot-3, 235 pounds and runs a 4.5-something 40 and he’s a student of the game,” Whittingham said of Lloyd. “He’s got a burning desire to be great. He’s put in the time and the work and the effort ever since he got here and now it’s paying off for him. I’m proud of him and it’s great to see him on that short list of Butkus Award finalists.”

The others on the list are Missouri’s Nick Bolton, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Kormoah and Georgia’s Monty Rice. 

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Of the five players, Lloyd has played the fewest games — four. Collins has played seven, Bolton and Rice have played nine, and Owusu-Kormoah has played 10. 

In the four contests he has played, Lloyd leads Utah’s defense in tackles with 38 and six tackles-for-loss. He averages 9.5 tackles per game. 

Lloyd, a junior from Chula Vista, California, recorded a career-high 11 tackles against USC and Washington this season. He had at least two tackles-for-loss against USC and Oregon State. Lloyd has played in 32 career games, including 18 starts. 

Oregon State Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan loses the ball as he is sacked by Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. Utah won 30-24. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Whittingham acknowledged it’s “very difficult” to earn this kind of recognition despite playing in just four games. 

“Obviously, some of the notoriety was based on last year’s performance because he played very well last season,” Whittingham said. “He’s been a mainstay for us this year, making a bunch of tackles. He and Nephi Sewell are No. 1 and 2 in tackles. Devin’s been extremely productive last year carrying into this year.” 

In last Saturday’s dominating 38-21 victory at then-No. 21 Colorado, Lloyd and the defense led the way on a cold day and a slippery surface at Folsom Field. 

The Buffaloes were averaging 245.5 yards rushing per game, ranked No. 10th in the nation going into the game. Utah held Colorado to 110 yards on the ground. Running back Jarek Broussard, who ran for more than 300 yards the previous week against Arizona, was limited to 80 yards on 14 carries. 

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“The defense played well from start to finish. It wasn’t perfect — we gave up a few things. That first play of the second half was a big one that we let get away from us,” Whittingham said. “But when you look at the defense overall, I believed going into the game the biggest factor and key to winning, other than turnover margin, was our rush defense taking away their rush offense. That’s what we were able to do. We were able to hold them to less than half their average. ... That was the biggest factor in my opinion and the reason we were able to get the victory.”

The Ute defense also forced three turnovers against the Buffaloes. 

Going into the season, Whittingham was concerned about the defense because of the challenge of having to replace nine starting positions from last season. Many of those new starters had no Division I experience. 

No doubt, the defense has exceeded his expectations. 

“We’re second in the league in total defense. If you would have told me that we were going to replace nine starters and playing with four, five or six freshmen at times and be second in the league after four games, I’d say that’s a pretty good job,” Whittingham said. “Those young guys are responding and we’re excited about their future, I can tell you that. They’ve got a great upside looking ahead.”