Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell were the meat and potatoes of the University of Utah football team’s defense last year. They showed out so much that each of them earned All-Pac-12 honors and have been making the rounds at the NFL Combine and Utah Pro Day.
As spring football continues and the 2022 season looms, the Utes are looking to fill the Lloyd-and-Sewell-sized holes in the team’s linebacker corps. But within that, the players in that room are trying to make names for themselves.
“Everyone knows the expectations from last year’s team, so we have to meet those expectations,” freshman Lander Barton said. “But we don’t want to be Nephi and Devin. We want to be known by our own names and play the same brand that’s been played of football, but maybe even in a better way.”
There are plenty of options in that room to fill the positions left by Lloyd and Sewell. But chief among them, at least so far, appear to be Barton, sophomore Karene Reid and Florida senior transfer Mohamoud Diabate.
Reid sees himself as one of the veteran leaders among the linebackers, even though last year was his first with the program. He’s trying to give the new linebackers the same tutelage he received from Lloyd and Sewell — taking them in, answering their questions, working one-on-one with them.
“I’m trying to do that for the young guys,” Reid said. “Letting them know that if they have questions, we can sit down and I’m not too cool or too good for anyone on this linebacker group.”
Lloyd and Sewell combined for 199 total tackles in 2021. Reid had 45 of his own. In Barton’s senior year at Brighton High School, he recorded 114 total tackles.
While the current group of linebackers wants to form their own identity, the example of their predecessors could prove instrumental to that happening.
“We’re definitely different than those two,” Reid said of Lloyd and Sewell. “But we are fortunate enough to have seen what it looks like — the amount of work that it takes, the amount of accountability that it takes. So even though we’re different, we’re going to try and follow that same formula.”
Diabate said he had plenty of options when he entered the NCAA Transfer Portal looking for a school that had the chance to win a conference championship. What attracted him to Utah, he said, was how Lloyd was used and how that led him to becoming a top linebacker.
“I had to make a business decision to put myself in that position,” Diabate said.
Diabate amassed 89 total tackles for the Gators last year. Before he left, he had surgery on his labrum, so he hasn’t participated in any spring practices with the Utes yet.
But that hasn’t precluded him from some early takeaways of the current iteration of linebackers.
“They definitely play with a lot of energy, play with some passion,” Diabate said. “They have a high standard of how they do their work, of how things get done. I’m really excited to join the group and hopefully elevate everybody.”
Of note to Reid so far this spring has been how well the freshman linebackers have taken to instruction.
“Sometimes freshmen come in and they feel like they’re the man from whatever high school they came from,” Reid said. “But the freshmen that have come have showed that they’re willing to work and humble enough to take correction. It’s impressive.”
Barton, whose entire family has played sports for the Utes, said his experience has been all positive so far. The linebackers eat lunch together often, and he’s directed most of his questions to Reid and Hayden Furey. When the summer months come, the linebackers have a standing invitation to his ranch in Duchesne, he said.
On the field, Barton has seen that although there’s intense competition for the spots Lloyd and Sewell left, there’s been plenty of collaboration and camaraderie as well.
“It’s great competition and also great leadership and kind of a brotherhood type of family feel,” Barton said.
Diabate said he’s not as concerned about the linebackers finding their own identity because the group, himself included, already trusts linebackers coach Colton Swan to put them in the right positions. The focus for the players, he said, has been on fulfilling their roles.
The Florida transfer also said he wanted to enroll early at whatever school he chose in order to get a head start on getting to know his teammates, coaches and the playbook.
So far, so good, it seems.
“In terms of chemistry, we already mesh good,” Diabate said. “We just excited for everybody to get out, everybody to be healthy so we can ball out together.”
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