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

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

“I came out here and I loved it here,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave this place. I don’t even want to go back home most of the time. … On the East Coast, we don’t hear much about these Western states, but I came out here and loved it. I love the mountains; I love the view; I love the coaches; I love the city, great people. So I’m blessed.”

His struggles didn’t concern Utah coaches. Erickson said he got to know Paul and his parents so well during the recruiting process, he understood the kind of young man they were dealing with.

“It wasn’t like we were just taking a guy who had an issue or two without really knowing him or his family,” Erickson said. “When he decided to leave, I checked it out, and I know what he’s about.”

He said he’s watched a lot of boys mature into men in his football programs.

“They all grow,” Erickson said. “Sometimes they learn by making mistakes. Sometimes they don’t. It’s like raising children. I wish I had a dollar for every child I’ve raised in my 40-plus years.”

While Paul was lured to Utah by Erickson, he said it was Whittingham’s background as a defensive coach and Sitake’s philosophy that really swayed him.

“I did my own research,” Paul said. “I looked him up, and I love the scheme. I love (Whittingham’s) history. I love his background. Then I met him as a person, and I loved him as a person. … He cares about you, and that means a lot to me.”

Paul isn’t the only one thrilled with his transfer to Utah. His teammates and new coaches believe he will bring intensity, speed and leadership to the Utes in the 2014 campaign.

“He redshirted last year and played scout team because of the transfer rules,” said Sitake. “We knew he was a special player. I knew about him when he was in Florida. He’s from my wife’s hometown. … He is really a welcome addition to our linebacking crew.”

Sitake said Paul’s teammates’ decision to elect him one of the spring football captains speaks volumes about their faith in him.

“He hasn’t stepped on the field yet,” Sitake said. “To have them think that highly of him, that’s a huge compliment to him and his skills.”

Energy, leadership and maturity

Erickson said it was Paul’s intensity that set him apart from other high school players with similar skills.

“His intensity level, how he plays, his knowledge of the game of football is unbelievable,” Erickson said. “We’re happy he’s here, and it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him.”

Erickson said those comparisons to Ray Lewis aren’t just childhood fantasies. And the coach should know. He coached Lewis when he was the head coach at Miami (89-94), and he saw similarities.

“I’m not saying he’s Ray Lewis,” Erickson said. “But Ray had that innate ability to see plays coming. And that’s what I saw in Gionni.”

Sitake said his passion and football knowledge showed even before he was practicing with the first string.

“He has so much energy and just a love for the game,” he said. “Today he got to play defense with us, to run with the ones, but if you were here during the season, he was on scout team then and he had that same passion and excitement for the game. This is the best part of his day. He just loves being part of this team. When you have a guy that does that, guys automatically make him a leader.” Nate Orchard was also voted a spring captain by his teammates, and he said Paul’s constant enthusiasm for all things football is rare.

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