Ah, linebacker - the best unit the University of Utah has to offer.

Led by Butkus Award nominee, All-America candidate, 1997 All-WAC first-teamer and media-guide cover boy Phil Glover, a gifted senior with decent size, extreme speed and strength, the Utah linebacker corps is veteran, talented, deep and experienced. Most have started because injuries hit linebackers hard last year."I like the linebackers as a total group," is the first thing coach Ron McBride says when asked to name Utah's strengths. "There are seven guys bunched that could play."

With quickness (4.48 40) to roam coast to coast and the team's second- and third-best weight-lift-ing strengths, Glover's the rover. He was team defender of the year in '97, No. 2 in tackles with the most unassisted . He is backed by soph Wes Tu-faga. "He is much like Phil, real explosive and a big-play guy," says defensive coordinator Kyle Whit-ting-ham, noting Tufaga put on 20 pounds from offseason lifting.

At middle are two who started last season, junior Taulia Lave and senior Cyrus Satoafaiga. "Both will get playing time, they are so close," said Whittingham. "We're 100 percent confident in either one." Lave started seven '97 games after a knee injury. Satoafaiga started four games.

Stud 'backer is veteran Jason Hooks, a '97 training-camp knee casualty who was granted a sixth year of NCAA eligiblity. Backed by Dicky Purcell, who started some at DE.

Grade: A

MORE UTAH DEFENSIVE LINE: "The front is as deep and as talented as it's ever been since I've been here," says Whittingham, in his fifth year, "inclusive of the Luther Elliss years."

"We've finally got some depth in there," says McBride, though he dismissed prized recruit Bobby Enosa three weeks ago. "We have to have one or two other guys step up, but we could have something special there."

Start with All-WAC first-team noseguard Pene Talamaivao, who's added 15 pounds of weightlifting muscle. Sophomore Maake Kemoeatu, coming off a Prop. year, "has really been a pleasant surprise. He's really pushing Pene," says Whittingham.

At tackle, it's Thomas, Ute leader in sacks, tackles for loss and leg strength, honorable mention all-WAC, up 20 pounds after his first offseason of weight-lifting. "But he is being pushed by Rod Talaeai and Richard Seals," Whittingham says.

At "open end" are veterans John Frank, hobbled last year by a stubborn muscle pull, and Everestt Matagi, who split time at both ends. At the other end, Andy Bowers and ex-Prop. Ed Ta'amu are having "a war," Whittingham says.

Grade: B+

BYU

DEFENSIVE LINE: LaVell Edwards says this year's crew may be the best he's ever had. Quite a compliment coming from a coach entering his 27th season at the helm.

"The defensive line is certainly the most experienced of all the positions," Edwards said. "I think we've got some very good linemen and depth as well."

Depth. Quickness. Experience. Size. BYU's got it all. The combination has defensive end Byron Frisch (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) saying there's no reason the Cougars shouldn't be completely dominant up front.

The second-team All-WAC honoree, a junior, speaks from experience. He led the Cougars with nine quarterback sacks and 15 hurries in 1997.

Frisch is joined on the starting line - for the second straight year - by seniors Ed Kehl (6-5, 295), Daren Yancey (6-6, 305) and Issiah Magalei (6-3, 280). All four have started or played significant minutes over the past three seasons.

The veterans are backed by a young, talented second unit featuring defensive ends Hans Olsen and Setema Gali as well as tackles Ifo Pili, Chris Hoke and Andrew Nash, who started two games last season and made some key pass deflections in BYU's win over Arizona State.

One WAC observer says the Cougar reserves may constitute the second-best line in the conference.

Grade: A

LINEBACKERS: Edwards rates his 'backers as being pretty close to BYU's defensive line in terms of depth, quality and experience. Middle linebacker Rob Morris is back for his junior season after leading the Cougars with 210.5 defensive points in 1997. The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder - a coverted running back who may also see action at fullback on goal-line situations - earned second-team All-WAC honors a year ago. Morris had 110 total tackles and was named BYU's linebacker of the year by the coaching staff.

Senior Brad Martin, who also started all 11 games last season, returns to man the weak side. He was fifth on the defensive stat chart and third in tackles with 78. The returning starters will be looked upon for increased leadership with the departure of Spencer Reid, who was a senior last season. His 191 defensive points were second only to Morris.

Special teams MVP Derik Stevenson inherits the strong side position. The former high school basketball teammate of NBA star Keith Van Horn is a senior known for his hard hits on special teams. His adjustment to position play, he has just 39 tackles over three seasons, is key to BYU's linebacking success. Senior Jeff Ellis is a capable backup in the middle, while freshmen Justin Ena and Stan Moleni could be called into action at the outside positions.

Grade: B+

UTAH STATE

DEFENSIVE LINE: Despite the loss of Big West defensive player of the year Ben Crosland, the Aggie defensive line should be as good as last year's unit - as long as everyone stays healthy.

The Ags return starters Lindsay Hassell and Caleb Smith at the ends and 300-pound Walter Fiefia, who started the first half of the season at tackle before getting injured. The other tackle spot will likely be filled by Vaea Fiefia, Walter's younger brother, who also played at Mountain Crest High.

That's a pretty fearsome foursome for the Aggies.

The problem for the line is a lack of numbers.

Doug Madoski, a redshirt JC transfer is pushing Vaea Fiefia for one spot, while Nate Larsen and Sean Hansen, who both saw limited action last year, will serve as backups. Beyond that, the Ags don't have much, which is a concern for the coaches.

"The guys we have are pretty solid guys, but we don't have much depth," said D-line coach Mike Tuiasosopo. He shudders to think what will happen if a couple of the starters go down with injuries.

The Aggies will go with four defensive linemen in a 4-3 setup, unlike the past few years when there were three lineman and a "stud," a player sort of in between a lineman and a linebacker.

Grade: B

LINEBACKER: Although Crosland was league player of the year last year, he couldn't even beat out Tony D'Amato for defensive player of the year on his own team. Which tells you how good D'Amato is.

D'Amato stepped right in out of Rancho Santiago Junior College, beat out a veteran for a starting job and ended up leading the Ags with 124 tackles and earning all-league first team honors. Since last year he gained 10 pounds, improved his bench press to 530 and was voted one of the team's four captains earlier this summer.

While Jeremy Hunt-Loveless and Todd Sofonia have both graduated, the Aggies feel they won't miss a step with sophomores Blake Eagal and Brent Pas-sey.

Eagal was a top special teams player and also started three games at linebacker, recording 27 tackles. Eagal isn't that big at 230 pounds, but he is known for his quickness and nose for the ball. Passey is even smaller at 220 pounds, but speed is his forte.

Tony Newson, another sophomore, is pushing the starters and should see plenty of action on the outside. JC transfer Josh Manning is slated for backup duty on the outside, while Brad Ferguson is the likely backup in the middle.

Grade: B+

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Football report card

... BYU UTAH USU

Quarterbacks

Running backs

Receivers

Offensive line

Defensive line A B+ B

Linebackers B+ A B+

Defensive backs

Special teams