Stevenson Sylvester has suddenly become the veteran of Utah's linebacking corps.
The junior, who recently turned 20, is the most experienced starter in the middle of the Ute defense. After playing alongside Joe Jiannoni, Malakai Mokofisi and Kyle Brady, who graduated, Sylvester finds himself in a new role.
"He needs to become the leader within our defense and he's doing a good job with that," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. "We expect him to be an all-conference performer on the field. I know he expects that and we expect him to be a great leader for us."
Sylvester made 45 tackles last season, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage. He also broke up five passes and had three sacks.
"He's a core leader on that linebacking group for us," said Andersen, who added that Sylvester hasn't lost any speed while adding 12 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame over the offseason.
At 224 pounds, Sylvester is adding size to his impressive athleticism. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hopes the former Las Vegas prep star bulks up even more, getting to around 230-235 as a senior.
"Coach made it an issue and it was my responsibility to get there," Sylvester said of his weight gain attained through hard work in the weight room.
The transformation, Whittingham said, is an example of how Sylvester "is taking charge" with the linebackers. Sylvester tops the depth chart at rover, while junior Mike Wright and sophomore Nai Fotu are the probable starters at the middle and stud spots, respectively.
"I feel like the leader, but everybody has their own role. I don't try to force anything on anybody. Our linebacker crew is very responsible," Sylvester said.
"Everybody knows the effort they need to give. That's what is great about our linebacking corps. We're young, but we're smart and we have a veteran feel to us. I love that. Everybody loves to study and everybody loves to be around football."
The game is something Sylvester is passionate about. He particularly enjoys the contact.
"I just love to hit. I love the defensive feel. I've got to react to other people's movements and that's just the type of player I am," Sylvester said. "Linebacker is the perfect position for me. I could imagine myself in another position."
Utah's defense, he explained, is like a family and everybody comes together to get the job done.
And there's plenty of work to do, even after leading the nation in pass efficiency last season.
"There's always room for improvement," said Sylvester. "We're younger and have a faster feel to us. We've just got to stay down there and get our core together."
The rest of the defense, he added, is shooting to be the best in the nation like Utah's secondary was statistically.
Sylvester is one of those expected to lead the charge this season. He said his confidence level has grown a big deal considering he returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown as a freshman against Utah State."I was all over the place," he said of his scamper for a score a play that drew some good-natured criticism from the coaching staff because he held the ball so gingerly. "I've settled down the past two years. I've liked it, and I'm fitting my role to this defense."