Rhett Wilkinson

Utah's LBs Hope To Defy Perception

Created on Jul. 14, 2013 1:11 AM EST

As one user opined on utefans.net: “Are you new here? Everyone knows that all Utah linebackers are walk-ons.”

Despite Utah's struggles at the position, that’s not quite the case. In fact, the unit may come together depending on how well the versatile Brian Blechen performs.

"We think that's the last stop for (Blechen)," the ninth-year Utah head coach told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "He's finally found his ultimate home and that's where we're going to keep him."

The message board sentiment, taken literally, is wrong. In fact, all seven of the Utes’ linebackers this season are on scholarship. The latter declaration? Whittingham will prove it true when Blechen starts at outside linebacker in Utah’s season opener Aug. 29 against Utah State.

Until now, the position has been secondary for Blechen, a three-time honorable mention all-conference player whom PacificTakes.com ranks as one of the Pac-12’s 10 best linebackers this season.

Blechen started the first four games of the 2011 season at linebacker (Whittingham’s interview with Klein preceeded the second). But Blechen has started just one game at linebacker since, despite bulking up from 205 to 220 pounds two years ago in order to help anchor the front seven.

Blechen (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) is expected to man the position full-time this year in order to make Utah’s linebacker corps one of the faster units in the conference. It seemed Blechen was of average speed at safety, but he will be one of the Pac-12’s fastest linebackers.

Whatever it takes, the senior mainly needs to find his way again. He has plateaued since his freshman season, when he made four freshman all-America teams. Recruited to play quarterback, he won the starting job at strong safety in the first week of his first fall camp in 2010. He took the Football Bowl Subdivision by storm with a game-clinching interception in Utah’s 2010 season-opener against ranked Pittsburgh. He also started 2011 with two picks in the Utes’ first game and was a Pac-12 honorable mention that season. He received the same recognition last year after being suspended for the first three games of the season, allegedly for failing drug tests for marijuana use.

Though his team did move to a more difficult conference, his eye-popping numbers fhave not picked up since his first season. His per-game production did improve last season (Blechen led Utah in tackles per game). But not being available for your team is something that doesn’t find its way into the box score.

One must think that Whittingham is downplaying the necessity of Blechen’s aptitude this season when he merely said, as he did on the university website, "Brian brings athleticism and toughness to the position and he makes a lot of plays.”

He’ll at least do that this season (ESPN has speculated that he’ll lead the Pac-12 in tackles) if he mirrors the play of his high school days and of his grandfather.

When Blechen transferred in from Simi Valley Royal High (Calif.) before his junior season, Moorpark Coach Tim Lins wasn't sure what kind of player he had.

By the time he was done, Blechen had played quarterback, safety, receiver and punter and led Moorpark to consecutive Southern Section championship games.

His grandfather, Bob, was a lineman at Covina High and Whittier College — both in the Golden State. The Detroit Lions drafted Bob Blechen in 1956, but cut him soon after. That hardly marked the end of his career: He played semi-pro football into his 60s and was inducted into the American Football Association Hall of Fame, which honors minor league and semi-pro players.

As for those other non-walk-on linebackers: Whittingham said the talent is there, but it wasn’t apparent during last season’s disappointing campaign because it was “decimated by injuries” — like quarterback (the team used three signal-callers).

Along with healthy legs, the 'backers may also be aided by the Utes' new plan to be quicker on the defensive line’s edges — especially with converted linebacker Trevor Reilly, an all-Pac 12 performer last fall, putting his hand down. Jason Whittingham tallied 35 tackles as a linebacker last season, but is joining Reilly up front to challenge junior Nate Orchard at the other end.

V.J. Fehoko, LT Filiaga, Reshawn Hooker and Jacoby Hale all started at least one game for the unit, but surprisingly, a non-starter from last season, sophomore Jared Norris who came out of spring camp as the co-starter at middle linebacker.

Filiaga (250 pounds) and Fehoko (5-foot-11, 225) combined for 62 tackles last season respectively, but both were weak links in coverage. Filiaga is battling Norris (6-foot-1, 230) and Hooker (220 pounds) for the job, leaving Fehoko and junior Hale (6-foot, 230) to do battle opposite Blechen. Fehoko may have the upper hand, having played in all 12 games last season.

If the group meshes with a resolute Blechen, it may the unit may flex in a way it hasn’t in Utah’s first two years in the Pac-12. 

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