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Utah Football Pre-Season Position Preview: Linebackers

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Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Utah has one of the most experienced position groups not just in the Pac-12, but in the entire country with the linebacking group. The three projected starting linebackers of Jared Norris, Gionni Paul and Jason Whittingham are all seniors and all have extensive experience starting for a power 5 school. Between the three, they combined for 444 tackles, 9 sacks and 4 interceptions and 54 total starts in their careers. With all of their experience, the three linebackers expect big things not just for themselves but for the team heading into the season.

The starting three for Utah are hungry for national recognition, and have their sets sights on being the best defense in the country. As good as Utah's defense was last season, the linebacking crew believes they will be better this season with Paul noting they are all returning bigger, faster and stronger with an added year of experience under their belt. Playing with a theme of "zero defect" this season, meaning zero defects or weakness on the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers hope to lead the Utah defense to greater heights than last year's team that led the nation with 55 sacks.

Last year the three didn't see as much time together on the field as they would have liked, with both Whittingham and Paul sitting out significant portions of the season with injury. For Whittingham it was a wrist injury suffered against Fresno State that caused him to miss the next eight games. Paul suffered a broken foot in spring camp last season and was told he was facing an eight to nine month recovery period. He came back in four, suiting up for the Michigan game, but still had pain in his foot. He hid that pain from the coaches and managed to play in eight regular season games before his foot finally gave out again. Despite limited action, Paul managed to finish fourth on the team in tackles with 61 and led the team with four picks. Paul sat out all of this Spring to ensure his foot was one hundred percent healed. If both Whittingham and Paul can remain healthy in 2015 the Utes will have a chance to meet their goal.

Behind the three starters is a good amount of depth for the Utes. Sophomores Christian Drews and Uaea Masina both have the potential to be contributors this season. Masina only played in two games last season before suffereing an injury and redshirting, but he recorded ten tackles in those two games and was poised to earn more playing time last season before his injury. He is slated to backup Paul this season. Drews played in 13 games last season mostly on special teams. The 6-1 233 lb. walk-on has good size and is set to backup Whittingham after recording three tackles last season. Keep an eye on both of these players as they could very well be starters on next year's team.

Utah promotes a family atmosphere and the linebacking group takes it to heart. Secondary coach Sharrieff Shah's son, Sharrieff Shah Jr. is a 6-0 217 lb. junior linebacker for the Utes. Shah isn't the only coach with realatives in the linebacking corp however. Head coach Kyle Whittingham has two nephews in Jason Whittingham and freshman walk on Sam Whittingham, as well as his own son, freshman Alex Whittingham, all playing linebacker at Utah. The two freshman Whittingham's will likely redshirt as they put on more bulk this season.

In addition to the player's already mentioned, Utah added a group of new talented freshman in Cody Barton, Jake Jackson, Braden Pelly, and Justin Tatola. Barton is the most celebrated of the bunch, coming out of Brighton high school and the younger brother of Utah offensive lineman Jackson Barton. Despite being a true freshman, Barton has a shot to see some playing time this season. Also added was junior college transfer Sunia Tauteoli out of Snow College. Tauteoli should see playing time this fall and is listed as Norris' backup at mac linebacker.

As Utah's most experienced position group, the linebackers will be counted on to provide leadership for the rest of the defense this season. All three starters are high caliber players with a knack of getting to the ball. The new additions should provide some much needed depth to position group. Norris, Paul and Whittingham will serve as the heart of this defense and set the tone for the rest of the players on the field.