It’s not that unusual these days for freshmen to make an impact in elite men’s college basketball programs, just given the nature of one-and-done transitions to the NBA.
And while it’s certainly not unheard of in college football, it is considerably more rare.
Which is what makes Lander Barton’s 2022 season for the University of Utah all the more remarkable.
Relative to some of the team’s stars, the statistical production wasn’t necessarily eye-popping, but again, given that he was a true freshman, his 46 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks were pretty impressive.
Each of those figures were tops among the Utes’ freshmen last season, and contributed to him being named Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and College Football News Freshman All-America Second Team.
“To do what he did as a true freshman …” linebackers coach Colton Swan said, before trailing off.
The point makes itself.
Barton not only got more than 400 reps last season, but clearly got better as the year went along, arguably playing his best game in the Rose Bowl against Penn State, where he had three tackles for loss and a sack.
It goes without saying, then, that expectations are high for what he can do as a sophomore.
“This is a guy that played a lot for us last year, was very productive for us last year, [but] usually from Year 1 to Year 2 — not always — is where you see the most progression,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “… Lander is mature and excited about the opportunity to compete.”
And despite the buzz around him, he will have to compete for playing time.
Swan said this is arguably the most talent and depth he’s had in the linebackers room since he’s been at Utah. Karene Reid, who totaled 14 starts, 72 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks last season, is the headliner of the group. Levani Damuni, who put up 76 tackles (including 3.5 for loss) as a team captain for Stanford a year ago, is the exciting, new transfer du jour.
And the numbers game gets even more complicated when considering how often the Utes deploy just a nickel scheme and play just two linebackers.
Could that aforementioned depth precipitate more 4-3 looks this year?
“Hey, if I was a coach, that’s what I would do, man,” Reid said with a laugh. “There’s so much good talent in the room, and [everyone’s strength] is different.”
Barton’s strength might well be … well, his strength.
“He’s big, he’s physical, he’s tough,” noted head coach Kyle Whittingham.
And Barton is even bigger this year than he was in 2022.
It’s honestly a predictable cliché at this point — after their first season of acclimating to college ball, so many players declare a need to get stronger, and proceed to hit the weight room with a vengeance … then one offseason later, profess a desire to shed a few pounds in order to better maximize their playing speed.
The Brighton High product, at 6-foot-4 and roughly 242 pounds, is hoping to find the happy medium in one go.
While Whittingham declared Barton “15 pounds heavier, maybe 20 pounds heavier [and] hasn’t lost a step,” the player himself estimated he’d actually gained 12-15 pounds since last season, just through physical maturation, working out, and eating clean.
“I feel good,” he said. “In [the] summer, I was kind of focusing on keeping that speed at a heavier weight.”
Of course, it’s not just how quickly he can get into the backfield, or range from sideline to sideline that matters.
Barton said that the area where he’s made the most progress is in his processing speed.
“Oh, [I’m] a completely different person. It feels way different being out there now,” he said. “… The speed of the game and the reads are kind of starting to slow down for me, which is a big help being out there because there are a lot of reads that you have to make at linebacker. So to be able to slow that down, it’s been good.”
Swan still sees more room for growth there, though.
While noting that Barton has, indeed, put a ton of work into study, he added that there’s still a natural progression to be made — going from knowing where he’s supposed to be to also knowing where everyone else on the field ought to be, too.
“That’s one thing that he spends an enormous amount of time doing, that’s one thing that I have expectations for him continuing to get better at — spending that time getting in that film room not only knowing what you’re doing, [but] what all 11 guys are doing and what the opponent is going to be giving you,” he said. “So that’s probably the next step that’s going to be really focused on.”
As Utah progresses toward the Aug. 31 season opener against Florida, Barton said the best thing he can do is to keep his approach simple.
“I’m just gonna do my job,” he said. “As Coach Scalley preaches — and Coach Whitt — we need to take care of our 20 square feet. So I’m gonna go out there and do what I’m expected to do, and hopefully that’s good enough.”
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