One of the University of Utah’s biggest positional questions entering 2019 was at linebacker. Fortunately, it was not as big a detriment as everyone feared.
Francis Bernard started all 14 games at mac linebacker, registered 85 tackles and two interceptions and was named all-Pac-12 first team. Devin Lloyd was a full-time starter for the first time, earning all-Pac-12 honorable mention honors after 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks from his rover position.
Entering 2020, new questions at linebacker have emerged. Lloyd is back as a redshirt junior, but Bernard is gone to the NFL, having signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys after the NFL draft. The primary question is, who slides into a major role next to Lloyd?
By any measure, the linebacker room will be young. The guy with the most intrigue of the group might be junior Nephi Sewell, who began moving from safety to linebacker during spring practice in March.
Sewell, who played in 23 games, including 19 starts, at Nevada between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, became eligible for Utah late in the regular season last fall. He played in the Utes’ final three games, including a start in the Alamo Bowl vs. Texas after Julian Blackmon and R.J. Hubert were both lost to injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon.
Sewell has a year of experience with Morgan Scalley’s defensive scheme under his belt, but getting him up to speed at his new position will be a critical storyline during training camp.
“He’s not extremely young to us, but he’s got two years to play and he’s been doing a great job,” Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan told The Salt Lake Tribune in early March, before the COVID-19 pandemic claimed the remainder of spring practice. “He shows a lot of natural instincts. He reads flows very well and can react to the football. He does a really good job.”
Beyond Sewell, redshirt sophomore Andrew Mata’afa saw action in seven games last season, but has never started, while Sophomore Hayden Fury played in five games last season, all on special teams.
Utah’s 2020 signing class included three linebackers. Sione Fotu, a three-star commit out of Bingham High, and junior college transfer Jeremy Mercier could factor into the mix.