Utah Utes football: Miami transfer Gionni Paul is relishing opportunity with Utes

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 5:55 p.m. MDT

Utah Utes linebacker Gionni Paul (13) rests during spring practice in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 18, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some days the regret Gionni Paul felt forced him to sit down at a computer.

In front of that screen, the 21-year-old would search for information about a coach he admired but had never played for — Dennis Erickson.

“I googled his name,” Paul said of the Utah assistant coach, who was the head coach at Arizona State when Paul was a highly sought-after Florida high school player. “I kept track of his career. … When I knew he got a job at Utah, I thought, ‘Let me get in contact with him.’ I tried to call him as soon as possible. I called all the office phones around here, head coach, all the coaches. I just wanted to be a Ute.”

What Paul really wanted was the opportunity he thought he’d lost. What he really wanted was the chance to play the game he loves for the man who made him feel like he was family.

And as luck would have it, his struggles at Miami would lead him back to Erickson and a program he knew nothing about in a state he’d never even considered visiting.

Chasing a legend, swayed by celebrity

Paul said his parents moved a lot when he was young, mostly around central Florida and North Carolina. When they ended up in Lakeland, Fla., Paul said he chose Kathleen High School because his football idol, Ray Lewis, had attended that school. While the athletic teen played three sports, football was his passion.

“I wanted to be like Ray Lewis,” he said with a smile after Utah’s first spring football practice last Tuesday. His affection for the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker also prompted him to abandon his original college commitment to Erickson and Arizona State when the Miami Hurricanes came calling his senior season.

Paul said he always wanted to play for Erickson but that when LSU, Auburn, Florida and Miami tried to woo him, he was swayed by the star-power of those programs, as well as their proximity to his hometown.

“Me being 16, 17 years old, it seemed like a good decision,” said the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker. “When Florida, Florida State, Miami came along, I thought I should stay close to home. I did regret it. My freshman year at Miami, I loved it there. But I felt like something was missing — the family part.”

Just as Lewis did, Paul chose Miami, hoping it would help him follow his idol into the NFL. And while Paul found some success on the field, his struggles off it would cause him to leave Miami after his sophomore season. University officials announced it as a mutual decision, but Paul takes responsibility for his part in his off-field struggles that forced coaches to suspend him twice.

“The fast life got to me,” he said. “I had a lot of growing up to do.”

Paul played in seven games as a true freshman, but he really began to make his mark as a sophomore. He played in 10 games and started seven as an outside linebacker. He finished third on the team with 61 tackles, including 40 solo stops, and was a two-time ACC linebacker of the week.

Paul said when he and the university announced his departure, he had other schools expressing interest, including a couple from the Pac-12.

“Then I heard coach Erickson was coming to Utah,” he said. His computer searches then expanded to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and the University of Utah. Then he began calling any and all phone numbers at the U., hoping to get in touch with Erickson. When he finally succeeded, coaches invited him to the Beehive State.

A new team, a new opportunity

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