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Before he was taken by Jacksonville in the NFL Draft, Devin Lloyd was the biggest brother in a Utah football brotherhood

During his time with the Utes, the linebacker has become one of the best players in college football

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah football linebacker Devin Lloyd speaks with the media on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2021.

”I feel like I was born to play football.”

— Devin Lloyd, Utah linebacker

Devin Lloyd is the answer to a weird question.

It’s an absurd question, really, one that has no authentic or literal usefulness, no practicality or application to it, except that it reveals a quality that has become more and more significant in modern football at every level: versatility.

On the Utah Utes, what single player, if you could pick just one to play every position, on offense, on defense, on special teams, on the bench, in the huddle, in the locker room, everywhere, who would be the best to fill that role, those roles, every role?

You already know.

Devin Eric Lloyd is … The Answer.

Not just that, he could articulate how those positions are played with a voice made for radio and then write about it afterward, him having a passion for the written word. Young Devin hand-wrote a book when was in middle school.

The reasons for his physical prowess are as varied and plentiful as his talents.

He’s got size, speed, strength, smarts, savvy, selflessness, sense, sensitivity and swagger.

What else could you want out of a guy?

He says his best trait of all centers on his instincts and his dedication to work. If that sounds cocky, it’s only because the old cliche about confidence stemming from diligence is confirmed in his case. We’ll get into that more later.

Not that it would ever happen, but in a pinch, if he had to, Lloyd, at 6-3, 235 pounds, could do it all, at least better than anyone else attempting to do so. You can’t see Britain Covey playing defensive line, or Nick Ford kicking field goals. You can see Lloyd managing it.

“I don’t know about offensive line,” he says. “But I take pride in being a well-rounded athlete. I should be able to play anywhere. That’s how I feel.”

Long before he became the Utes’ best player, honing his assigned specialty of blowing up offenses, on a high-quality team this season, before he was named a finalist for a hundred postseason awards, before he was mentioned as one of the country’s top linebackers and a projected first-round NFL draft pick, Lloyd had trouble finding a home on a football field.

As a kid, he didn’t even like football. His mom, Ronyta Johnson, held Super Bowl parties, and young Devin was up in his room playing Call of Duty or Midnight Club. He was more into basketball, which ultimately panned out because it was at a high school hoop game where Utah coaches first visited and became intrigued by him.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington State Cougars quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (18) passes over Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) as the University of Utah hosts Washington State, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Lloyd was introduced to actually playing football in his mid-teens, when, during a lunch period, he saw four kids going 2-on-2 out on the lawn. He thought he’d goof with it a bit, and once he did, he thought further maybe he’d be kind of OK at it.

In high school, it became the center of his existence.

The first position he commandeered as a starter was … hold back the chuckles here … punter. That’s right. He once booted a 60-yarder. He was also a wide receiver and a safety. He initially had no intention of becoming the next Bobby Wagner or Fred Warner at the college level or in the pros. His mind was riveted on ascending to be the next Dez Bryant or Calvin Johnson.

“I loved the way they attacked the ball,” Lloyd says. “… As a receiver, I had the mentality of whatever I touch, I catch.”

His mentality now is, whoever has the ball, whoever he touches, he catches and takes to the ground.

Having correctly surmised his own abilities and his makeup, in a burst of self-awareness, Lloyd softly suggested to his high school coaches that he switch to defense during his senior year, a suggestion that Utah coaches, once they spotted him, crafted into a scream and a shout, and a fact.

Lloyd listened and learned — although he assesses that had he remained a receiver, he would have been “up there with the top guys” — and thrived, transforming himself into Utah’s Most Important Dude, its boss on the field, an All-Pac-12 linebacker, and this season, an All-American-in-waiting.

He really is one of college football’s elite players.

Let’s back up here. There’s so much to his story. So much to absorb and appreciate, and if we lay it on a little thick, it’s only because it’s all real.

You’ve seen the way Lloyd does his business, week after week after week. Leading his teammates, administering his pain to opponents. You’ve seen the tackles for losses, the range in coverage, the shedding of blocks and the big hits.

You saw the play that defines Lloyd as well as any other — the remarkable pick-six he had against Stanford, the one where he unfolded himself like an extension ladder near the line of scrimmage, snagged a pass with his big mitts thrown from just a few yards away, as though he stuck a fork in a flying hot dog, and churned into the end zone for a score.

Tell me, who among God’s blessed, gridiron-kissed children does that?Who can do that? And how is it done? It was … how do you say? … insane.

But there’s more, the background, the good stuff that shaped all of that before its proper crystallization at Utah.

Lloyd was born in the heartland, in Kansas City, to military parents, both of whom served in the Navy and who, with many other good examples in his life, found a way to instill in him a desire to do big things in a big way, the right way.

In truth, he instilled and installed his share of that desire on his own — “I was pretty independent,” he says — although he also says he took from them “an understanding of what the job is and how to accomplish it to the best of my ability.”

His father, Joe, was in the Navy for just short of three decades. His mother also served for the years before Devin was born. He lived with his mom in KC for seven years, then moved with her and his grandma to Dallas for a time, before moving again to the San Diego-area to live with Joe.

“I needed a male figure in my life,” he says.

His father spent long hours on his job as a communications officer, and was deployed for months at a time. Because of that, Lloyd leaned on a man he refers to as “Uncle Darvin,” a longtime friend of Joe’s who was also Devin’s godfather. Darvin Glenn’s positive effect on Lloyd has remained firmly with him straight to this day.

“He’s a good-spirited man who gave me good advice,” Lloyd says. “He’s always been there for me.”

Says Glenn: “I just told him, ‘Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.’”

But, according to Glenn, Lloyd was born predisposed to confidence and conscientiousness. “Devin is self-governed and self-driven, always has been. He has the innate ability to [set] his goals and attack them.”

That was also a reflection of parents’ separate-but-united outlooks and attitudes. “Devin’s got the best parents in the world,” Glenn says.

One of the things Lloyd loves about football, something he noticed immediately when he started playing at Otay Ranch High School in Chula Vista, was something that had too often been absent in his life — a sense of brotherhood.

He had a brother once, in what seems to Lloyd like a different lifetime, but contact with him was ruptured due to a serious falling out, a chapter the linebacker prefers not to detail.

That left Lloyd to rely on himself, older adults, and friends who surrounded him on the field. He had always been a good student — in his earlier years, he favored math and, as mentioned, writing — but slowly his studies took a backseat to his new passion.

Lloyd has retained enough skill in arithmetics to count how many tackles for loss he’s accumulated at Utah (42) and he figures another authored book is in his future: “I’m pretty sure people will be interested in my story.”

Uh-huh.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) celebrates an interception as the Utah Utes host the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

A key to that story is Lloyd’s unique mental approach to good playing, good living. He knows not everyone has his natural talent, but as the years have gone by, he’s grown fast and strong, putting many hours into his training, building his lanky frame into what it is today, but there is that other side that has made him great — “I have the mindset on how to win battles,” he says.

As a receiver, that meant when he went to catch a ball, “there was no way I wasn’t coming down with it.” As a linebacker, it’s “make the play.”

So he does. A thousand of them.

“I push myself,” he says.

He did at Otay Ranch on a team that disappointed his senior season, going just 4-8. On account of that and the fact that few Division I football players had come out of that prep program, Lloyd was not heavily recruited.

Utah State was interested, as were schools like Colorado State, Hawaii, Wyoming, San Jose State, and UNLV. He actually verbally committed to the Rebels, but a month later bailed on that commitment. He was looking for something more.

The offers, though, dried up, as those programs filled their spots with other recruits.

“Two weeks before the signing day, I didn’t see any interest,” he says. “Then, Utah came in out of the blue. That was mind-blowing.”

In a good way. Smart moves on both ends.

“I fell in love with everything they had to offer,” says Lloyd. “There’s so much that set them apart. Utah took a shot on me. They looked at the person. …”

And?

“… I’m grateful I came here.”

That gratitude also runs both ways.

Adjustments were required for Lloyd to ease into the comfort he found in Salt Lake City, from the colder weather to a less-than-diverse population. But the transition suited him, initially thanks to the folks around him: “There are a lot of good people here.”

Inside the Utes’ facility, Lloyd looked to the left and to the right and what he saw motivated him to keep pushing forward.

First, he noticed a whole lot of top-drawer athletes, older players who both embraced him and set a strong example as to what would be expected of him. That’s something as a young player — he redshirted his first year, before diving fully into contributing to the team’s on-field success — that impacted him in a major way. And he’s never forgotten. That’s one of the reasons he emphasizes leadership now as a team captain, lending help to freshmen and sophomores who are learning the same lessons he’s already mastered.

Second, he discovered that one of the foundations of Utah football is exactly what he was afraid would be limited — diversity. The Utes are made up, by his measure, of roughly a third white players, a third Black players, and a third Polynesians, with a smattering of others.

He digs that in a big way, and he should — that so many athletes from so many different backgrounds come together to play together, to form the brotherhood he craves.

“It is the brotherhood,” he says. “Being surrounded by so many guys who can play. I learned how to be a pro,” to perform like one. “There are a lot of demands in this program.”

He met them, becoming a starter at linebacker in fall camp preceding the 2019 season, and from there, he soared to all kinds of heights.

“By the way I’ve worked, through my faith, I expect to be the best,” he says. “I believe in myself, I believe in the Lord. It doesn’t always happen the way you think, but it’s amazing how it comes together.”

That faith thing is something often heard on football teams around this state, and it is a significant part of Lloyd’s existence: “My faith is huge. I live through the Lord. I speak with him every day. I express my appreciation. It’s a testament to my parents, the way they brought me up, and I’ve had a lot of great examples in my life who have influenced me.”

People like Joe and Ronyta and Uncle Darvin.

“Devin’s a fine young man,” says Glenn. “His success brings tears to our eyes.”

After last season, some thought Lloyd might leave Utah to pursue his NFL career. It was something he fervently considered, but in the end, he decided to stay with the Utes. And it has worked out fortuitously for him.

He’s played brilliantly and continued to hone his game and help his teammates, too. He’s not a flawless player, but he’s not far off.

“I wanted to finish my career at Utah right,” he says. “I didn’t want to just up and leave the university after last season with COVID, no fans in the stadium, and tragedy [Ty Jordan’s death], as well. I wanted to leave the right way.

“I envisioned the success we’re having now. I wanted to be a part of that. And I wanted to be the best I could be before I left. I wanted to be a champion. I’d never won a championship in my life.”

The Utes are on the brink of that title now, if they can win the Pac-12 championship game in Vegas. A subsequent trip to the Rose Bowl wouldn’t suck, either.

Lloyd’s pumped, but it’s what he expected all along.

He’s happy to lead the way, passing everything he’s experienced and learned on to his teammates, on to anyone, really, anyone who watches him practice, anyone who watches him play, anyone hearing his deep booming voice, anyone reading his story.

This, he says, is just the opening chapter.

The book on Devin Lloyd will be written one day, some day. A working title: “Born to Play Football.” And the man who could play any position will be the author of it.

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