Utah football returns Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell, but linebacker position could get even better once Ethan Calvert arrives

Calvert is one of the highest-rated recruits in program history.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linebackers coach Colton Swan at University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

The top of the University of Utah’s depth chart at linebacker is pretty well set.

Redshirt junior Devin Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist in 2020, is back for one more run after putting the NFL Draft on hold, while Nephi Sewell had a fruitful first season at the position, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors.

“It was Christmas morning right there, wasn’t it?” Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan said jokingly Thursday morning in regards to Lloyd’s decision to return to Salt Lake City for one more season. “I was pretty excited. As everybody knows, he’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal young man and what a blessing. I’m very excited to have him back, to have the opportunity to have him back for one more year.”

Beyond those two, there are question marks. Four-star recruit Mason Tafuga and three-star Trey Reynolds are both just freshmen. Andrew Mata’afa is on the depth chart, but has only played in 12 career games, mostly on special teams, while another depth-chart linebacker, Hayden Furey, also hasn’t made a big splash at the position.

The answer for additional linebacker help might be another freshman, one who did not enroll early and is not due on campus until this summer, four-star signee Ethan Calvert.

“Ethan’s a special player, he’s had a great high school career,” Swan said. “He’s highly touted across the country with his linebacker play and his recruiting process. The expectations are high in this program and with me, but nothing is ever given, it’s always earned. The expectations for him, though, are to come in, work hard like everyone else, and earn that spot.”

The expectations may be high in Utah’s program, but the expectations are going to be high in general once Calvert shows up because the Oaks Christian School standout is among Utah’s highest-rated recruits ever.

A 6-foot-3, 230-pound inside linebacker at Oaks Christian, Calvert’s commitment to Utah on Nov. 12 was viewed as a huge boon to a 2021 recruiting class that wound up ranked 32nd nationally and fifth in the Pac-12. According to the 247sports composite, Calvert is the No. 3-rated recruit in program history, and its highest-rated linebacker recruit in a decade.

On Dec. 17, the day after Utah announced 18 new recruits to open the early signing period, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Calvert’s “got size, speed, intelligence, instincts, he’s a competitor,” while going on to indicate that he expects Calvert to compete immediately to start in 2021.

“To be on the field, you have to earn it, but yes, my expectations are high,” Swan said. “He was a very good high school player. I have to do a good job of coaching him and putting him in position, but I want him to come in, earn it, and work for it, and that’s his mentality. That’s who he is.”

If Calvert figures into the defensive plans immediately, he will join a unit that was better than expected during a COVID-impacted five-game season. Utah’s defense ranked second in the Pac-12 and 37th nationally in total defense (365 yards per game), and No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 11th nationally in rushing defense (107.8 yards per game).

Much of that rushing defense success was fueled by a stout defensive line, but also by the fact that Lloyd was everywhere, finishing with 49 tackles, 10 of which went for a loss.