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Utah will go as far as the defense, led by Stevenson Sylvester, can carry the team.
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This article appears in the August 17, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated
A BCS repeat? First the Utes have to pick a quarterback to run their spread attack.
Jack-of-all-trades Stevenson Sylvester can stuff the run or drop into coverage. He can play the weak side and the strong, hence his listing as a rover linebacker. But there is one duty that this senior from Las Vegas enjoys more than anything else. "I love blitzing with a passion," says the 6-2, 230-pound Sylvester. "I love getting to the quarterback and laying a hit on him. I would blitz every play if I could."
Alabama can attest to Sylvester's affinity for -- and proficiency at -- rushing the quarterback. After starting some R-rated trash talk with Crimson Tide All-America center Antoine Caldwell during the Sugar Bowl coin toss last January (on YouTube, search for "Utah," "player," "threatens" and "kill"), Sylvester blitzed his way to two sacks of John Parker Wilson, lucked (his word) into a third and pressured him into throwing an interception. All told Wilson was sacked eight times as Utah rolled the Tide 31?17 to cap off its BCS-busting 13?0 season.
The Utes face a number of challenges in trying to approach last season's surprising success, beginning with finding a replacement for quarterback Brian Johnson, who was 26?7 as a starter and the Mountain West Conference offensive player of the year in '08. As fall practice began there was no clear-cut front-runner among junior Corbin Louks, who has attempted 15 passes as a collegian; junior Terrance Cain, a first-team All-America at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, last season; and Jordan Wynn, a freshman from Oceanside (Calif.) High who enrolled in January. "The job is unsettled, but in a positive way, if that makes sense," coach Kyle Whittingham says. "We have three guys we really like. We just have to make sure we choose the right one because I've never been a fan of playing two quarterbacks."
Whoever emerges as the starter will run an offense that is expected to spread the field even more than last year with four- and five-receiver sets under newly promoted coordinator Dave Schramm.
However, the strength of the team will be the defense, which has seven starters returning. It's a high-pressure unit that blitzes up to 50 percent of the time and relies heavily on the lightning-quick Sylvester coming off the edge. In 36 games, including 24 as a starter, he has 182 tackles, 19 1/2 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
"He's a playmaker," Whittingham says. "It has happened ever since his freshman year when he intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown in his third game. He's a big-play guy."
Just ask Alabama.
-- Gene Menez
Issue date: August 17, 2009