Eighty percent of the University of Utah’s defensive starters from last season’s Pac-12 championship game are gone.
That includes the entire secondary, all of whom are on active NFL rosters or at least practice squads, and All-Pac-12 linebacker Francis Bernard, who latched on with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad last month.
With the Utes readying to open training camp Oct. 9 in advance of an abbreviated seven-game season, Devin Lloyd is all of a sudden an elder statesman as a redshirt junior linebacker.
There may be a lot of holes and a lot of question marks on the defensive side of the ball, but Lloyd, a first-time starter last season who finished with a team-high 91 tackles to go along with 6.5 sacks, is not one of them.
“For us, it’s not a matter of losing guys, it’s a matter of reloading,” Lloyd said Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters. “We have a lot of talent in the secondary, we have a lot of guys that have played in the front seven, we have guys all over who have playing experience. Yes, we only have two returning starters from last year, but at the same time, we have a lot of talent, a lot of guys who are hungry, and I don’t see why we couldn’t do what we did last year, but finish it this time.”
For Lloyd to arrive here, as the presumed leader of Utah’s usually-stout defense, he had to take a long, winding road this offseason.
The COVID-19 pandemic ended spring practice after three sessions during the first week of March. Football players did not start arriving back on campus in a voluntary capacity until mid-June. Since then, medical and testing protocols for student-athletes on the Salt Lake City campus have been strict, but, by all accounts, effective.
“I would say that we’ve done the best at that in the Pac-12, and probably in the nation,” Lloyd said. “It starts with our staff. I think all of our athletic personnel have done a great job with complying to all the rules and enforcing them. It’s just a testament to the team on how well they’ve just taken everything seriously.”
In between the pandemic, student-athletes by and large had an awakening over the summer, realizing that, in the age of social media, their voices can help affect positive change.
Positive change in terms of racial equality and police violence, which have been significant topics of national conversation in recent months in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Racial injustice, not to mention compensation and player safety, were at the forefront of the #WeAreUnited movement, a player-fueled push to boycott games if the Pac-12 did not meet certain demands.
Last month, Lloyd was at the front of a Utah player-led march to the state capitol, which included speeches and conversations about racial injustice. Lloyd gave a speech, as did other outspoken Utes, including redshirt junior offensive lineman Nick Ford, Utah’s de facto #WeAreUnited spokesman, and redshirt junior running back TJ Green.
“I think, first off, my team and myself have just tried to use our platform, try to use our voices for the better,” Lloyd said. “We want to get out and basically speak about how we feel, whether it has to do with equality, racism, police brutality, anything. We feel that now is the time for our voices to be heard as student-athletes and use our platform for what is right, that was the biggest thing.”
With COVID issues remaining prevalent, upwards of 150 FBS players nationwide have opted out of the 2020 season, many of those choosing to begin preparations for next spring’s NFL Draft. As a redshirt junior, Lloyd is draft-eligible and could have made a case to be selected despite only 14 starts in his career.
Lloyd made it clear Thursday that he never thought about opting out. Instead, he is choosing to embrace this weird, winding 2020 season, even if it is only seven games, which is fewer than the rest of the Power Five conferences are planning to play.
“I’d much rather be playing seven and contending for a Pac-12 championship and a national championship instead of sitting at home and waiting until next year,” Lloyd said. “I’m blessed that we have the opportunity to play those games and we’re going to take full advantage of them.”