SALT LAKE CITY — It was news to Jared Norris. The linebacker had no idea he was Utah’s leading tackler against BYU and UCLA.
“Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve heard that. I don’t really pay attention to that stuff,” said Norris, who had a career-high 12 tackles in last week’s loss to the Bruins and nine stops in the victory over the Cougars. “I just care about winning the game. I’ll do whatever I can to win.”
Norris, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound sophomore from Bakersfield, Calif., is certainly doing his part. Entering Saturday’s game against fifth-ranked Stanford at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Norris is tied with senior Trevor Reilly for the team lead with 37 tackles on the season. Norris is also credited with 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
“He’s a tough guy. I like the way he works,” said Utah defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kalani Sitake. “He’s a hard worker, and when you’ve got guys willing to do that — and have some athleticism — he’s going to end up being useful for us and in our defense.”
Sitake added that Norris has made a lot of improvement from last season and has even made strides since spring ball.
“Week to week we see a lot of good things in him,” Sitake said.
Norris is currently tied for ninth in the Pac-12 with 7.4 tackles per game. Even so, he’s far from satisfied.
“There is always room for improvement. I’m definitely nowhere near where I need to be,” said Norris, who noted there’s a lot of things he needs to work on technique-wise and assignment football-wise. “So I think however I’m playing now, I can get a lot better. I can keep things a little bit tighter in my game.”
Individual statistics, though, don’t mean much to the accomplished skateboarder. They are as fleeting as the scenery he passes while getting from point A to point B.
“We need to get to a bowl game and do all that stuff,” Norris said. “I could care less about the tackles. I just want to win. That’s all.”
After redshirting in 2011, Norris appeared in seven games last season — making two tackles and recovering a fumble against Northern Colorado. He climbed to the top of the depth chart last spring and has started all five games this year.
“He’s been a positive for us,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
Norris and fellow sophomore Jason Whittingham have proven to be quite a duo, interchanging between the mac and rover linebacker spots the past three games. Whittingham is averaging a team-high 8.3 tackles per game since returning from hand surgery that sidelined him for the first two games of the season.
“That's been a big plus for our defense,” Whittingham said of the linebackers. “Last year we struggled at that position, so to have those guys step up and start to be consistent playmakers has really helped. That's another trend we hope continues.”
Norris and Jason Whittingham are supportive of one another. So much so that Norris said when one makes a play it’s as if a brother did so.
“It’s a good deal,” he explained.
The duo are part of a linebacker unit that Whittingham said is “just making plays” as the Utes continue a season-ending stretch of Pac-12 games (three at home, four on the road).
“Although Jason and Jared are just sophomores, they’re playing good football for us,” Whittingham said. “We expect them to get better as time goes on.”
Sitake has similar expectations for all of Utah’s linebackers. Besides Norris and Whittingham, he is pleased with the play of others like the versatile Reilly, junior V.J. Fehoko and freshman Uaea Masina.
“I like our linebacking corps right now and knock on wood we have to stay healthy in order for us to play more effectively,” Sitake said. “But I like the way the group is starting to perform.”
The tests, however, keep on coming. After a strong showing against UCLA, Utah’s defense is now preparing to face a Stanford offense that averages 39.2 points per game with a scheme that averages 210.2 yards rushing and 198 yards passing.
The linebackers will be right in the middle of it all.
“We’ve got a lot of depth there I feel comfortable with,” Sitake said. “We’re going to keep getting better. We just need to get better faster.”
No. 5 Stanford (5-0, 3-0)
at Utah (3-2, 0-2)
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
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