‘Levani Damuni, Utah linebacker’ has a nice ring to it

After his mom once sold her wedding band to pay youth football fees for him and his siblings, the Stanford transfer is looking to show how far he’s come with her in the crowd for his home games.

Stanford linebacker Levani Damuni lines up for a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.(AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan describes Levani Damuni as big and powerful. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley notes that he’s fast and physical.

Ask the Stanford transfer about his mom, though, and it’s clear that one other descriptor warrants at least selective application: softie.

It’s not an insult, just the natural byproduct of a player appreciating that he’s gotten as far in football as he has in part because his mother, Val, once sold her wedding ring to come up with the fees necessary for her children to participate in a youth gridiron program.

“Money was tight and my mom just did that for us kids ‘cause she knows that we love the game — sacrificing something that means a lot to her to help her kids out,” Damuni said. “[It’s] something I’ll always remember and never take for granted every time I step on this field and and strap it up.”

His mom is not only a big reason why Damuni is playing college football in general, but why he’s playing for the Utes now after spending the past four years in Palo Alto.

He was born in Providence, Utah, grew up in Logan, and was a two-way star for Ridgeline High School in Millville. Though his dad, Waqa, is an Assistant Athletic Director at Utah State, Levani always dreamed of playing for Stanford — and he got to do it, even serving as a captain for the Cardinal this past season.

For the last bit of his collegiate career, though, the 6-foot-2, 241-pounder wanted a different experience.

“When I was at Stanford, every game was an away game for them. And so them just being right up the road up in Cache Valley and being a lot closer, it means a lot,” said Damuni. “I’m excited for my family to attend every game and get their support.”

He said his mom was visiting him and his wife out in the Bay Area when he broke the news that he’d be playing much closer to home in 2023.

(Eli Rehmer | Utah Athletics) Utah Utes linebacker Levani Damuni practices during the first day of the team's fall camp on July 31, 2023. Damuni was a captain at Stanford last season before returning home to Utah for his final year of eligibility.

“We were all on the phone with Coach Scalley, and she was just … she was super-happy,” said Damuni. “She loves it here, too, she loves these coaches, and yeah, she’s happy I’m here.”

It’s not just his parents and siblings and friends, though, who are thrilled he switched the red jersey he wears to crimson.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham, when asked what he’d seen from Damuni during the Utes’ fall camp, was positively effusive.

“Good stuff. He’s tough. For one thing, he’s there every single day, he comes to work every day, hasn’t missed a rep, hasn’t missed a period of practice,” said Whittingham. “He’s smart, picked up the defense very quickly. And he’s an excellent leader — I believe he was a captain at Stanford — so he’s got very good leadership skills.”

The coach went on to explain that Damuni “sets the bar” for younger players in the program with his work ethic both on the field and in film study.

Of course, all that work isn’t just for setting an example.

It’s quite necessary for the man himself.

As good as Damuni has been the past two years (85 tackles, five for loss, two sacks in 2021; 76 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack, one interception, two forced fumbles in 2022), there still has been an acclimation process with the Utes.

“Well, it’s tough, you know. I compare learn[ing] a new terminology as if you’re learning a second language. I mean, trying to pick up Spanish, everything’s completely different,” said Swan. “There are some similarities as far as what we’re asking him to do from what he has done. But you’re definitely behind in the terminology standpoint, you’re behind in what me as a position coach is asking of you.”

The linebackers coach noted that the staff has been “force-feeding” Damuni as much schematic and systematic information as he can handle, equating his intake to “drinking water through a firehose.” Beyond that, Swan added, the plan is to put Damuni in the right places, and then have him rack up reps and accrue experience.

The coaches are already seeing a difference.

“The more he’s gotten our scheme down, the faster he’s playing, the more physical he’s playing,” said Scalley.

Damuni is feeling it, too.

He noted that Swan and Scalley always preach playing physically, and while that’s been a strength of his in the past, he’s showing it more consistently now that he knows what he’s doing more.

Having an excellent group of teammates certainly doesn’t hurt either, as Damuni has upgraded from a team that went 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the Pac-12 last year to a Utah squad that’s made back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl.

“I just wanted to go to a great school that had a great tradition of defense, and where I could I fit well into the scheme, and I could play in back of a great D-line, and so all that matched up with Utah for sure,” he said. “… I’ve loved playing in back of this D-line. A great group of guys off the field, [and] on the field they’re all nasty, strong, [they] get after it. This D-line’s made life a lot easier.”

As a result, maybe this becomes the season where Damuni can best show off what his mom’s ring paid for.

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