SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah freshman Reshawn Hooker started at the rover linebacker spot against USC last week, nobody in the press box or stands knew who he was. Or very few people did.
Why should they? Hooker hadn't played a down for Utah all season, and he wasn't even listed on the Ute roster for the game. Yet here he was in the starting lineup. An announcement had to be made for the media about who No. 35 was, while fans in the stands must have been scratching their heads.
Playing against a team he grew up idolizing was quite a jump for the 18-year-old from Fontana, Calif., who was planning to redshirt his initial season for Utah but instead was thrown into the fire against the mighty Trojans.
Although it was an eye-opener for him ("it's a big difference going from high school to D-I ball"), Hooker played well against the Trojans, finishing with six tackles, including one for a loss. This week he'll play against another team he's very familiar with — UCLA — which offered him a scholarship out of A.B. Miller High School last year.
"It was fun after watching them on TV as a kid and then actually playing against them," said Hooker, whose uncle, R. Jay Soward, played for USC before going to the NFL. "It was kind of rough, but I think I've been able to adjust."
The fact that the Utes had to bring Hooker out of a redshirt year in the fifth game of the season might indicate that the Utes don't have a very strong stable of linebackers for play in the Pac-12. However, defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Kalani Sitake doesn't see it that way. He said Hooker fills a need for the Utes.
"He's got great instincts and great speed and athleticism," Sitake said. "We felt we needed that on the field at the rover position, especially after that Arizona State game. He's young, but we need a guy who can do that."
So far this year, the Utes haven't been able to get much consistency from the linebacker position, where Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez started every game last year at the middle and rover linebacker spots. In all, eight different players have started at the linebacker positions with only one, Trevor Reilly, starting all five games, at the stud position.
The other spots have been filled by seniors Dave Fagergren and Boo Andersen, sophomores Jacoby Hale, V.J. Fehoko and Jason Whittingham, and freshmen LT Filiaga and Hooker. Reilly is the team's top tackler with 32 through five games, while Fagergren ranks third with 24 and Filiaga tied for sixth with 20.
Although Hooker and Whittingham started the most recent game, they are listed as co-starters with Hale at the rover position and Filiaga at middle, going into the UCLA game. And Sitake insists Fagergren and Andersen are still in the mix, although Andersen is still limited by a nagging knee injury. Fehoko mostly plays defensive end now.
"We're trying to find the right guys and get the best mix," says Sitake. "Our goal is to get the best guys out there."
Coach Kyle Whittingham says both Hooker and Whittingham would have played sooner in the season, but both sat out with injuries, which hindered their progress. He also says he isn't disappointed by the overall play of the linebackers this year, but did say, "It's a work in progress, for certain. We've got to get better."
As for Hooker, he's looking forward to this week's game as well as a long career at Utah.
"I felt this was the best fit for me, as far as academics and the football program here, and my family felt it would be good to be away from home, growing up," he said. "I love it here."
As for Saturday's game, Hooker is excited to play in front of his friends and family, who live about an hour away from the Rose Bowl.
"My family will be at the game, and it should be fun," he said.
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Utah (2-3, 0-2) at UCLA (4-2, 1-2)
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