Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester sacks UCLA's quarterback Ben Olson. Sylvester is part of a tremendous linebacking squad.

Of all the positions on the Ute football team, perhaps the one that has flown under the radar more than any other this summer is the linebacker position.

Quick, name the three starting Ute linebackers. How about any of the backups?

Let's see, there's that guy with the backwards name, the guy who hits real hard and the local kid who walked on the team.

That would be Stevenson Sylvester, Nai Fotu and Mike Wright. They have earned the three starting spots, with players such as Kepa Gaison, Mo Neal, Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez chasing them, not that far behind and pushing the starters every day. None are seniors, and only Sylvester has significant collegiate playing experience.

Even though it's an inexperienced bunch, the Ute coaches don't seem to be wringing their hands over the lack of experience in the middle of the Ute defense.

"They are a very athletic group and have done a good job through fall camp," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "They've got good size, are fast and there's a lot of competition. You'll see more than three play."

Linebackers coach Kalani Sitake is happy with the progress of the linebacking corps and is looking forward to see how they'll perform Saturday at Michigan.

"I'm more anxious than anything," he said. "I'm not nervous. I know they'll be ready."

The only returning starter is Sylvester, who earned his starting rover linebacker spot by default when Kyle Brady was lost for the season with a torn Achilles in the sixth game last year against Louisville. But he made the most of his opportunity and finished the season as the Utes' second-leading tackler behind safety Steve Tate with 86, including 45 solos. He also had three sacks and five pass breakups.

Sylvester not only has an unorthodox name — he says the majority of the time he gets called Sylvester Stevenson — he's an unorthodox player.

"He's like the boxer or batter who has a weird stance but still gets things done," said Sitake. "He's smaller than guys like (former Ute star) Spencer Toone and Kyle Brady, but he makes up for it by being surprisingly strong with great technique. He's a good leader as shown by being named captain as a junior."

Fotu, a sophomore from Hawaii, is the stud — or strong-side — starter. He didn't play a lot last year, but fans remember him because he was hard to miss when he did play because of his crunching hits.

"Nai is the most physical out of the bunch," said Sitake. "I think he'll be one of the most exciting players on the defense. We're excited to see what he can do on the field now that he's a full-time starter. He's an emotional player, who loves to hit. He's a dangerous player the way he moves. ... He's active and has good instincts. You'll see how special he is on Saturday."

Wright, the starter in the middle, is a walk-on who was recruited by defensive coordinator Gary Andersen to Southern Utah and redshirted before going on an LDS mission to Bolivia. When he came home, he gave the Utes a call and walked on, playing in 10 games in 2006. Then last year, he moved up quickly from special teams to get significant minutes with a career-best seven tackles in the win at Colorado State.

"Mike is athletic and has a great understanding of the defense," Sitake said. "A lot of people don't realize how athletic he is. He moves really well for how big he is. He kind of gets overshadowed by the others, but Mike does everything the right way, he's consistent and most solid performer we have."

Gaison, a junior from Hawaii, is the backup at all three linebacker spots and will see a lot of action.

"Kepa Gaison has been the guy who has really stepped up and knows every position," said Sitake. "He came here as a punter. I saw him run around and said, 'This guy moves really well for a kicker.' He's only been playing linebacker for a year."

The linebackers are a humble group according to their coaches, but they're ready for Michigan and expecting big things.

"It's been a long seven months, but now that it's here, we're excited," said Sylvester. "I expect us to play at high intensity. We can't wait."

"We're ready to go, ready to beat Michigan," said Wright. "We're an athletic group, we have speed and we're going to fly around and make plays for our defense."

We'll find out Saturday just how good the Ute linebackers are. The position looks solid for the forseeable future, with nine top linebackers returning next year along with JJ Williams, a starter in 2006 who will be back from a mission.

"We can always get better, but the cupboard's not bare, that's for sure," said Sitake.

Season-opener

Utah at Michigan

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT

TV: ABC

Radio: 700 AM

Utah's young linebackers

• Stevenson Sylvester 6-2 224 Jr. second-leading tackler last year

• Mike Wright 6-2 230 Jr. Former walk-on is smart, athletic

• Nai Fotu 6-0 235 So. Known for his crunching hits

• Kepa Gaison 5-10 230 Jr. Former punter has made transition

• Mo Neal 6-2 230 Fr. Impressive in spring, slowed by injury

• Chaz Walker 5-11 220 Fr. Moved from defensive backfield

• Matt Martinez 6-0 230 So. Walk-on from Murray

• Lisi Leota 6-1 235 Jr. Scout team MVP in 2007

• Jamel King 6-2 225 So. Knee injury has sidelined him


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