Utah football: Linebackers step up; face big test in Cardinal
The most notable item in Utah linebacker Jared Norris' bio until recently was that at 6 foot 1 and 230-pounds, he was the biggest participant at a pro skateboarding camp.
Luckily he is becoming more known for his antics on the football field than off it.
Norris, like the rest of Utah's young linebackers, slowly is coming into his own. He is tied for the team lead with 37 tackles and has 4.5 tackles for loss, along with two sacks, two pass breakups and a fumble.
Fellow sophomore Jason Whittingham, the coach's nephew, leads the Utes in tackles per game (8.3), including a career high 10 against UCLA.
Junior Jacoby Hale has missed two games with injuries, but he still leads the Pac-12 in sacks per game (0.75).
That the linebackers finally are starting to assert themselves in games comes as a relief to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who wasn't happy with the group's output last year or in fall camp.
They were young but needed to deliver more, he said. They finally are heeding his call.
"Having them step up and be consistent playmakers has really helped," he said. "They are being more productive, and the last few weeks have been more consistent and assignment sound."
Their play will be crucial this week when the Utes take on No. 5 Stanford, which relies on a run game led by quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Hogan, a mobile quarterback, is averaging 186.4 yards passing a game and 5.3 yards per carry.
However, he is just the kind of quarterback the Utes prefer to face, Norris said.
"It's going to be a lot of downhill football with a lot of running, so it's perfect for us," he said. "They are a tough team and they are going to be tough to play. But we're tough too, so it's going to be a good fight."
Playing against a veteran group like Stanford's offense doesn't make it much of a fair fight for the young Utes, but what they lack in experience they seem to make up for in attitude.
"We're all still developing," Norris said. "But we're getting better and we feel like we're closer where we need to be in games. We just have to keep getting better."
The Utes knew they were in for some growing pains at the linebacker positions following the 2011 season when they graduated Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, two solid players as well as team leaders.
Behind them was a group of freshmen that included Nate Fakahafua (now Orchard), V.J. Fehoko and Jacoby Hale and sophomore Trevor Reilly.
Orchard since then has moved to defensive end, while Reilly plays a hybrid role.
The linebacking group has been beefed up with the addition of Whittingham, a 6-2, 240-pound sophomore, and the addition of freshmen Pita Taumoepenu (6-1, 215) and Uaea Masina (6-2, 215), but it's still a work in progress with Hale sidelined with a lower leg injury and senior Brian Blechen recovering from knee surgery.
Coach Whittingham has yet to decide whether to redshirt Blechen, but since the veteran still hasn't returned to practice, it's obvious he remains several weeks away from seeing live action.
Trevor Reilly • Plays both defensive end and linebacker, is tied for team lead with 37 tackles this year
Jared Norris • Tied with Reilly for team lead in tackles and has 4.5 tackles for loss
Jason Whittingham • Leads Utah in tackles per game (8.3) and has 25 total tackles
No. 5 Stanford at Utah
O Saturday, 4 p.m.