SALT LAKE CITY — As fall camp nears, the Utes have to be both excited and nervous about the situation at linebacker heading into the 2014 season.
Utah junior linebacker Jason Whittingham (6-foot-2, 240 pounds), a 2013 all-Pac-12 Honorable Mention honoree and second-leading tackler, returns for another year. Junior linebacker Jared Norris (6-2, 237) also returns as a starter from last year.
If Miami transfer Gionni Paul (5-10, 227) and senior Jacoby Hale (6-0, 230) can heal from injuries suffered in the spring, their presence will be a welcoming boost during the season. Utah’s linebacker group is thinner than other positions on the team.
Whittingham, the nephew of head coach Kyle Whittingham, finished last season with 81 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack in 10 games. He also forced a fumble and recovered one too. Meanwhile, Norris ended 2013 with 64 tackles in 10 games, including 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Hale played in nine games last year, compiling 37 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. However, he injured his knee during spring camp and his 2014 season could be in jeopardy.
If or when Paul is able to come back from his foot injury, he expected to jump right into the lineup and excel. Paul ended 2012 with 61 tackles at Miami, which was third most on the team that season, before transferring to Utah. He redshirted last year.
Sophomore Uaea Masina (6-0, 222) appeared in 10 games last season, picking up seven tackles, but coaches expect him to break out this season.
Utah State transfer Sharrieff Shah (6-0, 217) played on the scout team last year, but is a possibility. Sophomore Marcus Sanders-Williams (5-11, 222) switched over from the offense and could provide an impact.
Tanner Larsen (6-3, 221), Henry Nawahine (6-1, 233) and Kyle Whittingham’s son Alex Whittingham (5-10, 214) also return for Utah.
Utah brought in a couple of recruits to linebacker spot this season. Hauati Pututau (6-3, 230), a two-star recruit according to Rivals.com, joins the Utes. Freshman Aaron Borg (6-0, 220) also joins the Utes.
Jason Whittingham and Norris will likely control all the talk at the linebacker spot. Therefore, Masina, who the coaching staff likes, might be the guy that needs to step up at linebacker. If he can step up, it’ll be a huge boost until Paul and Hale can return.
The Utes have a lot of talent at linebacker, although thinned by injuries to Paul and Hale. If they are able to return, Utah might have one of the better linebacker groups in the Pac-12. Jason Whittingham has the potential to rise as one of the top Pac-12 linebackers.