Gary Andersen left the Utah football program in December to become Utah State’s head coach, taking Justin Ena with him. The Utes found two replacements, with dramatically different job descriptions in 2019.
Sione Po’uha coaches the defensive tackles, with returning starters Leki Fotu and John Penisini and a lot of dependable reserves, led by Hauati Pututau and Viane Moala.
Colton Swan coaches the linebackers, the position group that formerly showcased Cody Barton and Chase Hansen and then lost projected starter Manny Bowen, who gave up football just before the start of preseason camp.
Who would you rather be?
Po’uha, a star of Utah’s unbeaten 2004 team and an NFL veteran, is going to look good in his first season. Swan’s case is conditional. If he can help Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd perform anywhere near the level of Barton and Hansen, and develop the likes of junior college transfer Trennan Carlson and Sione Lund behind them, he will have done some of the coaching staff’s most important work.
That responsibility gives Swan, 38, a lot to think about on his two 50-minute drives every day, commuting from his home in Morgan. He’s trying to establish himself at Utah after spending 20 years as a Weber State player and coach, working in various roles for five head coaches.
“Obviously, this opportunity’s been great,” Swan said of moving to the Power Five level. “When you’re surrounded by good coaches and good players, it makes for a great experience.”
Swan lived through both extremes in his Weber State tenure, leaving the Wildcats on an upswing with consecutive appearances in the FCS quarterfinals. This job comes with its own demands, though. Utah needs its linebackers to perform like All-Pac-12 players.
Even a strong endorsement of Swan from his former boss comes with an expectation attached: His guys had better come through.
“He's phenomenal. He's as good a coach as I've ever been around at any level,” said Weber State coach Jay Hill, formerly a longtime Utah assistant. “That guy can coach at any level. … But he's got to have his position group play well.”
Evidence, one way or another, will surface Aug. 29 in the season opener at BYU. The reviews of Swan's work in preseason camp were outstanding, with safety Julian Blackmon citing the linebackers as the most improved defensive players.
They also had the biggest opportunity for growth, with so much to prove at their position amid the high standards of following Barton, a third-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, and Hansen, who signed with the New Orleans Saints (he’s on the injured list). Review any play that ended with a tackle last season, and there was about a 1-in-3 chance that one or both of them was involved in it. Utah’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme is designed for the two linebackers to rack up statistics, but they actually have to get to the ball and make those tackles.
The Ute linebackers have responded well to Swan this month. “There’s never a dull moment with him — always hyped, always upbeat,” said Bernard, who missed spring practice with a shoulder injury and is just now getting accustomed to Swan on the field. “You mix that with being very knowledgable and passionate; we’re fortunate to have him.”
The most encouraging clues suggest that Bernard and Lloyd have learned from last year's seniors.
“The leadership that those younger guys saw from Chase Hansen and Cody Barton last year has really helped them understand how to work and how to study,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley.
Swan, too, has made a good impression. “As a coach, you need to be a good teacher,” Scalley said. “He understands how each player in his room learns and he teaches them accordingly. He's got a ton of energy; I don't believe you can coach without passion, without energy. And he's got it. And he understands what we do.”
Swan credited his players with doing the off-field work. “They’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying,” he said. “That’s a big thing in our defense, the linebacker’s got to be a smart individual, so they’ve got to spend a lot of time. I tell them all the time, it’s like a math problem: You’re not good at math without just doing it. You’ve got to sit down and do it.”
This season, Swan be judged by the performances of two players — and the guys behind them.