In the light rain and cool temperatures of a July afternoon, Utah's linebackers were the last players to jog off the practice field Wednesday.
Extra work on their own is necessary for a group that lost a potential star, right before the start of preseason camp. The first detour in Utah’s preparation for the Aug. 29 season opener at BYU came Tuesday, when Penn State transfer Manny Bowen told coach Kyle Whittingham he was giving up football to pursue business opportunities.
“It surprised us completely,” Whittingham said, “because there was no hint or nothing out of the ordinary all through summer training.”
Utah’s coaches spent the summer believing they would be adequately staffed at linebacker, even while having to replace possibly the best tandem in school history: Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. Bowen established himself in spring practice and Francis Bernard played well at the end of last season, before missing the spring with a shoulder injury.
Former Ute tight end Jake Jackson made a similar career choice as Bowen, but he did so prior to spring practice – not the day before camp. Jackson and Bowen are among 13 would-be Utah seniors who have left the program since the end of last season for wide-ranging reasons that include their academic pursuits, job opportunities, transfers in the interest of playing more and the time demands of football, in the case of walk-ons.
This development, though, is “a shocker,” linebackers coach Colton Swan said.
So imagine being Swan, having joined the staff in January from Weber State and getting hit with this week’s news. Or defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, whose scheme is built around having two starting linebackers make about 100 tackles apiece in a season. Or third-year sophomore Devin Lloyd, who’s suddenly practicing with the No. 1 defense.
Lloyd could be forgiven for describing this transaction as “totally a blessing,” as he fielded questions.
“Nothing really changed,” he said. “I have the same mindset. I just wanted to come in, dominate, show what I can do. Just now, I know I'm going to be the guy.”
Utah generally uses only two linebackers, and a lot is asked of them. The Utes will need consistent performances from Bernard and Lloyd. “Both those guys are huge talents,” Swan said.
After spring practice, Scalley labeled Lloyd the defense’s most improved player, and Swan said Wednesday, “I’m super excited about him. … His intensity and mentality are exactly what I like to coach.”
Bernard is healthy and eager to play against BYU on Aug. 29 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where he spent two years as a running back and linebacker. “I had the whole offseason to get my body right,” he said. “I believe I’ve got great instincts; I’m a great football player. The thing that’s always kind of held me down is being in shape. I’ve lost a ton of weight, a ton of fat this offseason.”
Bowen's departure affects Utah's depth. Coaches must hope Stanford transfer Sione Lund, redshirt freshman Andrew Mata'afa and junior college transfer Brennan Carlson, a late addition to the 2019 recruiting class, will become dependable reserves in four weeks.
Getting them ready is “our job as coaches,” Scalley said. “We can't sit there and whine and complain about it.”
Donavan Thompson would have been in Utah's linebacker rotation this season, but he left the program in the winter. Mique Juarez has announced his move from UCLA to Utah as a graduate transfer, but January is the earliest that could happen.
Bowen’s move ends a college football career that produced some highlights at Penn State, amid unfulfilled promise.
Suspended or dismissed from Penn State’s program multiple times, Bowen walked away from the Nittany Lions the week of the 2018 season opener. He graduated in December and joined the Utes, knowing they would need replacements for Barton and Hansen. Utah welcomed a player who once made 12 tackles in a victory over Ohio State and helped Penn State to a Big Ten championship in 2016.
During spring practice in March, Bowen sounded very eager to play. “This is a redemption opportunity,” he said. “A lot of people in my position don't get this chance. So my foot is on the gas pedal this whole, entire season.”
His comeback didn’t last long, though. The Utes will play on without him.