When people think about Utah’s defensive tradition, they naturally think about ballhawking, playmaking defensive backs and havoc-creating defensive linemen racking up quarterback sacks.

Well, move over, DBs and D-linemen. Utah is becoming a destination for highly touted linebackers. 

The 2021 team boasts star middle linebacker Devin Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist last season, as well as Nephi Sewell, a Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention.

And Utah is attracting some of the top linebacker recruits in the country. 

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Last December, the Utes signed four-star recruit Ethan Calvert, who is the third highest-rated signee in program history, according to 247Sports.com.

Also joining the class were four-star linebacker prospect Mason Tufaga and three-star linebacker recruits Trey Reynolds and Cole Bishop.

“In terms of why ’backers want to come to Utah, just look at the defensive front, the guys that take up blocks and demand double teams and allow your ’backers to roam free and make plays,”  said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “The reason our ’backers are the most productive players on our team is because those D-linemen do such a great job of owning their role.

“Trust me, Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell are grateful. They tell those defensive lineman how grateful they are for them and what they do. It’s a team sport and the ’backers in our defense are going to be productive based on how the D-line does.”

Of course, the Utes have produced several top-level linebackers over the years, including Cody Barton, Chase Hansen, Trevor Reilly, Nate Orchard and Stevenson Sylvester. 

Tufaga, Reynolds and Bishop are all currently enrolled and participating in spring drills. Reynolds and Tufaga are backing up Lloyd, according to the spring depth chart. Bishop is listed as the backup strong safety, behind Kamo’i Latu.

Nephi Sewell signals during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Sewell, a Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention last season, brings valuable experience to the Ute linebacking corps this season. | University of Utah Athletics

Joining Calvert, an inside linebacker, for the 2021 season will be another outside linebacker signee, Jonah Elliss, who is the son of Luther Elliss, an All-American for Utah from 1991-94 who enjoyed a 10-year NFL career. 

“You recruit to your numbers, where you feel you lack depth. That was one of the positions we felt we needed to strengthen,” Scalley said. “We did that in recruiting. (Linebackers coach) Colton Swan did an awesome job of targeting the guys that he wanted, that fit our culture. We recruited the snot out of them. We’re fortunate to get a good group to come in.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham has been pleased with what he’s seen from the linebacker position thus far through spring practices.

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“The linebackers are doing a good job. Devin Lloyd is the headliner there,” he said. “We’ll add Ethan Calvert this summer to that group, which will make it even stronger.”

Calvert was rated the No. 4 inside linebacker in the country and the No. 6 overall recruit in the state of California. He received invitations to the Adidas All-American Bowl, the Under Armour All-American game and the Polynesian Bowl. His older brothers, Bo and Josh, play at UCLA and Washington, respectively. 

“I love everything about him. He’s a prototypical linebacker. He’s got great size, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and runs like a deer. Instinctive, tough, extremely smart, and so he’s the whole package and we’re elated to have him in the program,” Whittingham said. “He’s got two older brothers that are good players as well at different schools in the Pac-12, and he’s following suit with his older brothers.”

With the way Lloyd has been playing, and with the potential of the linebackers that will be taking the field for Utah, maybe when people think about Utah’s defense, they’ll think about its linebackers.