Utah's no-name linebackers have game
A quarterback, a safety and an economics major walk into the Utah football locker room and â¦ walk out as Utah's starting linebacker corps?
Sounds like some bad joke doesn't it? But the joke might be on Utah's opponents this season if the linebacking performance in Utah's win over Pitt was any indication.
Utah's motley crew of linebackers helped take the Heisman hype away from Pitt running back Dion Lewis, holding the sophomore to a career low 75 yards in Utah's 27-24 overtime win.
And that performance may only be a glimmer of what is to come. Utah's linebackers believe. Heck, if they can throw down a few more performances like last Thursday's, people might even know who they are by the end of the season.
The three current starters are about as plain and blue-collar a mix of guys as a Top 25 team could have.
Chad Manis is the former quarterback known more for his tattoos than his tackles, Matt Martinez is the local kid who walked onto the team while earning a degree in economics, and Chaz Walker is the former walk-on safety turned middle linebacker.
Also in the linebacker mix are backups Jamel King and Boo Andersen and junior J.J. Williams, a projected starter who has been sidelined with a foot injury.
Out of the group, Andersen has the most credentials after leading Alta High to a state title his senior year. But even that achievement doesn't give the group much clout which is just the way they like it.
Rather than being about glitz, hype and recruiting stars, the linebackers pride themselves on being the guys who get the work done on the field, even if no one knows who they are off it.
"We aren't the most athletic of linebackers," Walker said. "But we try and make up for that in work ethic on and off the field."
While their backgrounds might seem unconventional for the makings of a successful lineup, the group is, in a way, carrying on a proud tradition at the position.
The Utes have often taken unknown talents and molded them into standout linebackers, from Joe Jianonni (2005-07) and Tommy Hackenbruck (2003-04) to last year's starting group of Mike Wright, Kepa Gaison and Stevenson Sylvester.
Last year's group was so successful many fans might have forgotten that Wright was a walk-on, Gaison was a former punter and Sylvester spent almost as much time playing in his high school band as he did on the football team.
This year's group believe they have similar potential, although they understand why others might be skeptical given their backgrounds. They are using such skepticism, whether it is real or not, as motivation.
"Going into any game you always feel like you have something to prove," Manis said. "But we know people definitely had some questions about the linebacking group. We were trying to prove a point. Going up against a running back like Pittsburgh had, it was a great opportunity to do that. We made some plays and had some fun and came out with a 'W.'"
One guy they don't have to convince of their talents is Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. A linebacker during his BYU playing days, Whittingham cast himself as an overachiever who "didn't have much ability but found a way to help the team out."
Whittingham finished his career as the WAC Defensive Player of the Year in 1981.
He admits he still has an affinity for guys who are underrated but work hard to succeed which is a description that fits his current linebacking corps.
"They are as blue-collar as you can get," he said. "They are a group of guys who work hard and are a close-knit group and do all the things they need to do to be successful."
The linebackers spent a lot of time in the offseason together, working out and hanging out to form the strength and chemistry they feel they need on the field. So far so good. And maybe like last year's starters they'll even have a little razzle dazzle to go with their work ethic when all is said and done.
Then again, maybe not.
"We aren't last year's group," Walker said. "We are our own guys. Just linebackers."
A closer look Utah's linebackers
Position • Rover linebacker. Ht/Wt/Class • 6-0/223/Junior
How he got here • Walked on after playing at Cottonwood High School
On the field • Finished 2009 with six total tackles
Off the field • Went 38-1 as a senior wrestler in high school
Position • Middle linebacker. Ht/Wt/Class • 5-11/218/Junior
How he got here • Walked on at Utah as a safety
On the field • Had a career high 11 tackles against Pitt
Off the field • Won the Utah state karate championship
Position • Stud linebacker. Ht/Wt/Class • 6-5/235/Sr.
How he got here • Came to Utah as a QB after playing at Cerritos College
On the field • Played primarily on special teams in 2009
Off the field • Says he enjoys playing the drums and ping pong
UNLV at No. 20 Utah
P Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • The Mtn.