SALT LAKE CITY — Linebacker Devin Lloyd and defensive end Mika Tafua were roommates when the Utah Utes went to the Alamo Bowl in December. Now juniors, they’re the only returning starters on the defense that ranked among the nation’s best in 2019.

Graduation and a couple of early NFL departures have left the Utes with nine starting positions to fill on a squad that finished second nationally in total defense (269.2 ypg); third in defensive touchdowns (5) and rushing defense (81.8 ypg); sixth in first-downs defense (208) and scoring defense (15 ppg); ninth in third-down conversion defense (30.1%); 10th in pass-efficiency defense (112.89 rating); and 15th in red-zone defense (74.2%).

“We change faces every year. Obviously, we’re losing more than normal this year but at the same time it’s going to be fun — playing with Mika and then playing with a whole bunch of new guys. So I’m excited. I’m ready.” — Utah linebacker Devin Llloyd

The success helped the Utes win 11 games, repeat as Pac-12 South champions and contend for a College Football Playoff berth.

Now comes a less certain future. Confidence, though, is in no short supply.

“We change faces every year,” Lloyd said. “Obviously, we’re losing more than normal this year but at the same time it’s going to be fun — playing with Mika and then playing with a whole bunch of new guys. So I’m excited. I’m ready.”

Lloyd and Tafua spoke about the impending situation while Utah prepared to face Texas in San Antonio. The conversations have carried over.

“We’ve kind of talked about it, just understanding that we have to step up and really lead this defense,” Lloyd said. “Our success is going to depend on how we lead and how we set the example every day at practice.”

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Although the Utes only had three spring practices before things were halted by the coronavirus pandemic, Lloyd said things are moving along.

“Of course. Every day is valuable. Every snap is valuable,” he explained. “So we made a lot of progress, I think, in those three days. We didn’t get as much time as we wanted, obviously with everything going on, but we made a lot of progress in those three days alone.”

Lloyd added that the Utes have a lot of young guys that are hungry and want to improve.

“They’re just willing to learn,” he said. “Any time that we have to get better, we’re doing that and they’re doing a great job.”

Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) runs out of the pile with a recovered fumble giving the Utes possession in BYU territory during the second half of the Utah-BYU game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Lloyd and Tafua helped set the tone last season. Lloyd led the Utes with 91 tackles, including 11 for loss and 6.5 sacks. Tafua made 46 stops (8.5 for loss) and tied for the national lead with four fumble recoveries.

Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley acknowledges that the two players are the right type of mentality guys and hard workers.

“They’re competitive, determined, both have the right mindset,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the right skillset. Both of them have that. It’s another thing to have the right mindset and the good thing is they’ve got the right mindset. They understand what it takes to win, what it takes to lead and so we are going to draw on them — big time — this season.”

Looking ahead

While noting that the Utes are moving forward without a lot of guys, especially on defense, Lloyd expressed confidence that the team will continue to work hard and be successful. 

“The talent on this team, I would put it up against any Utah squad,” he said. “We’ve just got to put it all together.”

Lloyd added the importance of meshing things individually and mentally.

“I know our coaches are going to work their tails off for us. So I know that’s not going to be a problem,” Lloyd continued. “But that’s a day-to-day process and everybody has got to want it just as much as the next person. If we do everything we’re supposed to do I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Lloyd speaks from experience. He went from a redshirt in 2017 to primarily a special teams contributor in 2018 to a standout on defense in 2019. 

Utah Utes linebackers Devin Lloyd (20) and Francis Bernard (13) team up to stop Northern Illinois running back Tre Harbison (22) during second-half action in the Utah-Northern Illinois football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“I would say it’s just hard work, honestly. You hear it all the time, but it really depends on how much you’re putting in,” Lloyd said. “You know how hard you’re really pushing yourself, you know how much work you’re putting in, so, me, I pride myself on outworking my opponent and being the hardest worker on the team and in the country.”

Lloyd seized an opportunity created by Manny Bowen’s decision to retire and wound up starting all 14 games last season. He vows to continue pushing himself daily, expressing a belief that a lot of success will come with it.

“My mentality is just continue to get better every day. You can’t find any excuses,” Lloyd said. “You can’t find a way out. You’ve got to find a way in, find a way to get better.”

That’s a philosophy, he explained, that the coaches are trying to emphasize.

Finding a way proved challenging, initially, for Lloyd upon his return home amid the coronavirus pandemic. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Chula Vista, California, said he had to get creative the first week or two because gyms were closed and there really wasn’t any place to work out. 

In the garage, though, was a small weight set from Walmart that his father had purchased five or more years ago. Lloyd wound up rearranging it to fit his current needs — using it in a bunch of different ways — and it hasn’t broken yet. While getting creative with his homegrown workouts has been fun, Lloyd has since found a gym to join other student-athletes for early-morning lifts. He lives next to a park and is doing field work and studying a lot of film.

“So there really hasn’t been any drop-off in terms of like my workouts or anything,” Lloyd said. “I think I’ve been able to stay pretty consistent.”

Such was the case as a sophomore as Lloyd topped Utah in tackles. He noted it was great and all to do so, especially with a talented tackler like Julian Blackmon on the defense.

“To claim I have more tackles than him it feels pretty good,” Lloyd said. “But, really, we ultimately didn’t finish the job and more than anything all I want is a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl championship. So I’m just more than excited to have another opportunity to come back and finish that this year. So that’s my biggest focus.”

Getting it done

As a man in the middle of the Utah defense, Lloyd has plenty of opportunity to make an impact. He works hard to make the most of his opportunities.

“So much of it is just his attitude — his willingness to learn, his want to, his care factor. He’s a guy that wants to be in the film room. He’s a guy that’s constantly asking us questions about scheme and about football situations,” Scalley said. “He’s benefitted from being in the same room as Cody (Barton) and Chase (Hansen) and Francis (Bernard).”

The torch has been passed as Lloyd takes on even greater duties on and off the field.

“Now it’s kind of his time. It’s his room to lead,” Scalley said. “He and Mika are the returning starters on defense, so we need them to step up in their leadership role. No one is more prepared than this guy because of the guys that he’s been around. He’s seen what leadership is.”

Utah’s yearly tackles leaders in Pac-12 era

2011 — Chaz Walker, 118

2012 — Trevor Reilly, 69

2013 — Trevor Reilly, 100

2014 — Jared Norris, 115

2015 — Gionni Paul, 117

2016 — Chase Hansen, 90

2017 — Kavika Luafatasaga, 82

2018 — Cody Barton, 116

2019 — Devin Lloyd, 91