Utah football: Utes linebacker corps looks steady heading into 2017

Utah linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga (55) pressures Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Washington won 31-24. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

It was when Kavika Luafatasaga could play seamlessly, without pausing to think of play calls or coverages or audibles, that Sunia Tauteoli saw the linebacker unleash what they first talked about months prior.

Tauteoli hosted Luafatasaga when Utah was recruiting the 6-foot-4, 235-pound linebacker, and Tauteoli’s message to his eventual teammate was this: “The sky’s the limit.”

Fast-forward a little more than a year later and the pair are leading Utah’s linebacker corps together. Now seniors, Tauteoli and Luafatasaga are cogs in the vaunted Utah front seven. The defensive line is considered the team’s deepest position — surprise, surprise — but in order to continue the tradition of being a run-stuffing, physically-imposing defense, the back end of that front seven can’t bend or break often.

Seniors such as Tauteoli and Luafatasaga know it, too.

“You just bust your butt in whatever you’re doing,” Luafatasaga said, “and guys will follow.”

The former four-star junior college talent once bound for Ole Miss played in 13 games in 2016, making eight starts. Luafatasaga had 52 total tackles, 12 of which came in Utah’s Foster Farms Bowl win over Indiana last December. That performance came right after a 10-tackle outing in a loss at Colorado that also featured two tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah DL Hauati Pututau waves his finger at the BYU bench as if to say "not so fast" after LB Sunia Tauteoli ran 41 yards for a TD on the game's first play from scrimmage. Utah led BYU 7-6 after one quarter of play, Saturday, September 10, 2016.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said Luafatasaga was arguably the best player in each of Utah’s last two games in 2016. That’s when Tauteoli saw the rangy senior play without overthinking.

“That’s scary when you see that,” Tauteoli said.

Utah does return junior linebacker Cody Barton (second-leading tackler from last year with 66 tackles) and sophomore Donavan Thompson (12 tackles in 10 games played), but other linebackers who will be potentially leaned upon this year are still adapting, Tauteoli said. Arizona transfer Cody Ippolito is picking things up quickly.

“It’s like clockwork for him,” Tauteoli said.

Scalley said Luafatasaga, Tauteoli, Barton and Thompson are Utah’s top four linebackers entering the year since the Utes flex to a nickel defense so often in Pac-12 play. Odds are Utah will enter into some three-linebacker based sets early in the year, Scalley added, which could free up more room for more linebackers playing.

“Right now,” he said, “we’re happy with what we’ve got.”

Tauteoli’s utilizing his veteran voice already. After Monday’s practice, he laid out the number of days until the season-opener and said frankly, “We still have a lot to work on.” That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he added. Newcomers and those vying for time just need to watch the senior duo.

“[The new linebackers] know this defense is a nasty defense,” Tauteoli said, “so if I do it, they’ll do it.”

Waiting game continues

Junior college transfers Tareke Lewis, a defensive back from Palatka, Fla., and Derrick Vickers, a wide receiver from Bakersfield, Calif., have still not reported to camp for the Utes as they sort out their academic eligibility requirements.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Lewis will now join the program in January. Vickers’ status remains up in the air. Vickers is viewed as a potential big-play threat in kick/punt returns.

“Vickers’ drop dead date is probably by this Friday,” Whittingham said Monday. “We will redshirt Tareke and bring him in. He’ll still have two years left when he comes in January.”

Changing it up

The last week of camp featured more changes on the Utah roster. The Utes announced Monday that Josh Nurse officially moved from wide receiver to defensive back, while Alani Havili-Katoa moved from defensive line to offensive line and linebacker Jake Jackson is now a tight end. Senior Troy McCormick is also now splitting time between wide receiver and running back.

“He’s a versatile guy, so we’ll use him to highlight his talents,” offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said, “but I see him more as a running back.”