‘Essentially coaches on the field’: Utah’s starting linebacker trio providing veteran leadership

Utah linebacker Karene Reid during spring practice.
Utah linebacker Karene Reid during spring practice.

It’s becoming increasingly rare in the transfer portal era, but it’s happening at Utah.

All three of Utah’s starting linebackers have returned for 2024, and the group is shaping up to be rock-solid in 2024, anchored by seniors Karene Reid and Levani Damuni and junior Lander Barton.

Like many of Utah’s position groups last season, the linebacker unit had to adjust to injuries — Barton’s season ended after getting hurt at USC on Oct. 21 — but the Utes didn’t miss a beat as experienced Stanford transfer Damuni took on an elevated role for the rest of the season.

According to Pro Football Focus data, Barton, Reid and Damuni all graded out in the top six players on Utah’s defense among players that played 100 snaps or more, and the eye test backed that up.

Barton made a big leap from his freshman to his sophomore season, flying all over the field and making some impactful plays. He had 34 tackles, two interceptions (including a pick-six), two pass breakups and a forced fumble in just seven games before sustaining the season-ending injury.

Reid was a steady force with 67 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups (third-most on the team), while Damuni really came into his own while playing increased snaps from late October on — leading the team in tackles with 87 (2.5 for loss with a combined sack).

Both Reid and Damuni elected to come back for the 2024 season, fortifying a position that has been historically strong for Kyle Whittingham’s team.

“Super impactful,” Reid said about the trio sticking together for another year. “I think it’s really helped our leadership and we’ve been able to spread out and develop the group faster as a whole. I think since my freshman year, it’s been a new set of backers since 2021, and so just leadership and maturity has been huge so far.”

That veteran leadership is important to have, especially since the linebackers are the “quarterbacks” of the defense. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley puts a lot of responsibility on the strong safety and the linebackers to “communicate pretty much everything to everybody.”

“It makes it nice, that’s for sure, to have the experience. They’re essentially coaches on the field and do a great job,” linebackers coach Colton Swan said.

Other returning contributors include sophomore Sione Fotu — who played 110 snaps on defense last year, the vast majority at linebacker, with 18 tackles and a pass breakup — and senior Josh Calvert, who played 28 snaps with three tackles.

While spring football is valuable for every member of the team — Reid said that this year’s camp focus is on takeaways, something the Utes’ defense has been historically good at but saw a dip in last year, taking the ball away 15 times, ranking 97th in the nation — it’s especially important in the development of underclassmen.

The starting spots are likely locked up for the year, but players are working to become primary backups and see the field in certain situations. The linebacker room saw Justin Medlock and Owen Chambliss transfer out in the offseason, plus Hayden Furey and Jason Siaosi graduate, so there’s now opportunity for some of the young guys to prove themselves and perhaps crack the two-deep.

Three-star 2024 signees Hunter Andrews and Kana’i Lopes are two true freshmen that have caught Swan’s eye so far in Utah’s opening week of practice. Andrews primarily played running back in his senior season at Magnolia High School in Magnolia, Texas, but said that he could have a higher ceiling at linebacker in college. Lopes had 45 tackles and a fumble recovery for St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California.

“Both of those guys are doing great things. They’ve got a very high ceiling, very promising in what they’ve shown thus far,” Swan said.

Returned missionaries Moroni Anae, who walked onto the team in 2018, saw action in three games on defense in 2020, and then left for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission, is now back with team. Trey Reynolds, who played seven snaps in the 2021 season, also returned home from his mission and has been participating in spring ball.

“Both of those guys have been in the program before, so they might be a little bit ahead of the two freshmen that I mentioned earlier. But out of those four guys, a lot of real promise from young players, from an athletic standpoint, from a mental standpoint, doing great things and really excited for the future of them,” Swan said.

The linebacker group should be the strong point on Utah’s defense with three experienced players leading the way.

“This is my fourth year, my senior year, so I’m just trying to squeeze everything that I have left in me, man,” Reid said.