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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah's Chaz Walker has become a tackling machine for the Utes with 27 stops in the season's first two games.

SALT LAKE CITY — Before this season, linebacker Chaz Walker had never started a game for the Utah football team. In fact, he wasn't even listed as a starter for the Utes going into this season.

But after two games, look who not only leads his team in tackles, but is tied for first in the nation in tackles with 27.

It's Walker, the guy with the funny first name, the long, shiny black hair, and a guy who recently became a black belt in karate.

The former walk-on from Davis High School has made the most of his opportunity filling in at the middle linebacker spot for projected starter J.J. Williams, who has been out for a month with a foot injury.

After leading the Utes with 11 tackles against Pitt, Walker came up with 16 tackles in Saturday's win over UNLV. When asked about being the top tackler in college football right now, Walker just shrugged it off.

"That's what they told me," he said. "It's nice to have, but it's not what I'm after. I'm just doing my job."

Walker gives credit to the Ute defensive line for getting rid of the blockers so he has clear sailing to make tackles.

"That's the only reason I get the opportunity," he says. "The D-line is hogging all the O-lineman. I'm just flowing to the ball and luckily they come to my side more. It's just the luck of the draw."

Ask his coaches, though, and they say it's more than just luck.

"Chaz is an absolute blue-collar guy," says coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's assignment-sound, he's tough and smart, and he studies and prepares well. It doesn't surprise me that he's having success."

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who also coaches the linebackers, couldn't be happier with the way Walker has responded so far this year as the starting middle linebacker.

"He's tough and athletic and his knowledge of the game is his biggest asset," said Sitake. "If you're a tough guy that's smart and have athleticism, usually that translates into a good football player."

When Walker first walked on to the team in 2007, he was a 190-pound safety. But right from the start, Sitake had his eye on him to play linebacker, and a year later he was switched and now he checks in at 220 pounds.

"Even when he came here as freshman, I wanted to move him over to linebacker as soon as possible," Sitake said. "That's because of his toughness. He's one of those guys that can take on offensive linemen. People look at him and say he's a bit undersized, but the guy makes up for it in a lot of ways. He's physical and takes on blocks very well."

Walker is one of many walk-ons on the Ute roster and one of several with a BYU connection. His father went to BYU and played safety at the same time Whittingham was playing linebacker for the Cougars.

Walker said he considered BYU along with a few other schools, but decided to walk on at Utah in 2007 after meeting with Whittingham.

"After I met with Coach Whit, I had the feeling this was the place I had to be," he said.

And what's the deal with the hair?

Walker says he wanted to grow his hair out as soon as he came to Utah, but the other safeties were getting buzz haircuts. However, after moving over to linebacker in 2008, he felt he could grow his hair out and hasn't cut it in two years.

"I decided to let it happen and just kept it going," he said of his shoulder-length locks.

And when is he planning to cut it?

"We'll see, it's got no limit really," he said, although he may get in trouble with the rules if his hair ever gets down to his number 32.

As for his name, Walker said it's actually Kevin Chaz Walker and he's gone by Chaz his whole life.

So where did it come from?

"Everyone asks me that question. I just know my mom decided on it," he said.

Walker's hobbies include golf and karate, although his golf game has gone downhill since he got bigger and became more dedicated to football. He's been participating in karate since he was about 4 years old, and two years ago he earned his black belt.

"It's a hobby I like to do," he said. "It relieves a lot of stress."

With Williams still questionable for this week with his lingering foot injury, what's going to happen to Walker when the former starter gets healthy?

Sitake said Walker can play all three linebacker positions, so he may move over to rover linebacker, where Matt Martinez has been playing, or stud linebacker, where Chad Manis has been the starter. Or perhaps Williams will move to rover linebacker and Walker will stay in the middle.

Whatever happens, Walker will still get his minutes, says Sitake.

"That just gives us more guys to work with," Sitake said. "We'll see which lineup will give us the best defense going into each game. Regardless of who's taking the first snap, they're all going to see the field. I feel like I have more than three starters."

Utes on the air

No. 14 Utah (2-0, 1-0 MWC) at New Mexico (0-2, 0-0)

Saturday, 6 p.m.

University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.

TV: The mtn. Radio: 700 AM

e-mail: sor@desnews.com