He’s been BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy. He’s been Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone. Now he gets to be Utah linebacker Gionni Paul.
A former ACC linebacker of the week at Miami, Paul was typecast in his redshirt 2013 season as the best linebacker on the Utes’ opposing team.
The offense “would try to have their off days, and I’d bring it to them,” said the former scout team superstar, now a 230-pound junior. “I’d wake them up.”
His performances drew raves from teammates, so much so that without him having played a down, they named Paul a spring captain.
“We trust him and we know that he’s going to bring it every time, and when we need big plays, he’s going to be there,” said senior defensive end Nate Orchard.
Inertia personified, Paul started walking at 8 or 9 months and never slowed down unless he crashed into something, says his dad, Masha. As an 8-year-old in a 12-and-under youth football league, he was accused of being too old. “He was hurting people,” Masha said. “He just had so much energy and was so aggressive. Everywhere we’d go, we had to show his birth certificate.”
Kathleen High football coach Irving Strickland’s first memory of Paul was when he was in middle school and his older brother Miguel* was putting up 5,000 jump shots each day in the gym. While big brother hooped, the pudgy youngster ran ladders to shed weight and the “Jellybean” nickname kids had given him.
By his freshman year, Paul was a 5’10, 185-pound bell-ringer, and what’s more, “he knew the game of football,” Strickland said. “Knew where to be at if this happened or that happened.” Upperclassmen gave Paul some guff when he started as a freshman, and Strickland taught him that if he wanted to be a leader, he had to first show he could follow.
He shut up, and he worked.
Paul’s mom, Leslie, is a high school guidance counselor, and his dad, a former Philadelphia Eagles free agent signee, is a coach. They arrive at school at 6 a.m. and they don’t leave until around 7 p.m., Masha said. It’s from them that Paul said he gets his industrial-size motor.
“Effort’s between you and you, and nobody can take that away,” Paul said. “You can mess up on a play, but if you’ve got effort, you can recover.”
He often spent spare time watching video with Strickland and asking about the mechanics of plays. One game, Strickland recalls, he moved Gionni from outside to middle linebacker and he made four or five plays in a row to seize momentum. “I’ll tell you what, he was a kid who could take over a game by himself,” he said.
Then-Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson was among many recruiters who took notice. Paul liked him, and committed to the Sun Devils as a junior, but had second thoughts when mom worried about him moving so far. So he switched his commitment to his childhood favorite, Miami, where fellow Kathleen product Ray Lewis made his bones — albeit playing for Erickson — before becoming one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time.
Alas, he wasn’t a happy Cane. Before long he regretted decommiting from ASU, and things got uglier when he was suspended from the team as a sophomore for being late to a team meeting. After the 2012 season, a school spokesman told the Miami Herald that the school and Paul came to a mutual decision to part ways.
He called Erickson, now in Salt Lake, who still had fond memories of Paul as a prep.
“I’m not saying he’s Ray Lewis, by any means — but Ray had that innate ability to see plays coming and see plays develop, and that’s what I saw in Gionni,” Erickson said.
He’s a better fit in Utah. Masha said Paul is “a big nerd” who loves to hunt, fish, ski and mountain climb. “Me and Miguel would be out there running and Gionni would be out there trying to catch bees in a jar,” he joked.
On the first day of spring camp, the U.’s human AA-battery yelled at Utah wideouts Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson to “Come get y’all’s [butts] kicked” after coaches called for the ones to face off. Thursday, fans watched him race quarterback Travis Wilson to the sideline and scream that he’d better get out before slapping Wilson’s helmet. The quarterback —a close friend — shook his head and laughed.
“He could get along with anybody,” said safety Charles Henderson. “It’s great to play beside him.”
Paul said he’s grown up. He listens more.
Last year he became father to a little girl, Skylar, who lives in Miami and sees him only once every couple of months, he said. But she is always on his mind.
“It drives me. I continue to work hard and hopefully get a shot at the next level. If not, then to be the greatest person and the greatest leader that I can be.”
* Weber State fans might know Miguel as the point guard who led East Carolina to a CIT Championship Game victory last April. Miguel was also part of an Elite Eight run with Missouri and plays professionally in Croatia.