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Utah football fall practice position preview: linebackers

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 2:11 p.m. MDT

BYU's Taysom Hill is tackled by Utah's Jared Norris as the University of Utah and Brigham Young University play football Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Provo.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) BYU's Taysom Hill is tackled by Utah's Jared Norris as the University of Utah and Brigham Young University play football Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

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.

Returning experience

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.

Utah Utes linebacker Jason Whittingham (53) tackles  UCLA Bruins running back Jordon James (6) for a loss  in Salt Lake City  Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes linebacker Jason Whittingham (53) tackles UCLA Bruins running back Jordon James (6) for a loss in Salt Lake City Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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.

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

Tanner Larsen (6-3, 221), Henry Nawahine (6-1, 233) and Kyle Whittingham’s son Alex Whittingham (5-10, 214) also return for Utah.

Key additions

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.

Dark horse

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.

Utah's Jacoby Hale and teammate Justin Thomas bring down Oregon's Byron Marshall as Utah and Oregon play Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 in Eugene. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah's Jacoby Hale and teammate Justin Thomas bring down Oregon's Byron Marshall as Utah and Oregon play Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 in Eugene. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

General outlook

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.

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