JACK-OF-ALL-TRADESStevenson Sylvester can stuff the run or drop into coverage. He can play theweak side and the strong, hence his listing as a rover linebacker. But there isone duty that this senior from Las Vegas enjoys more than anything else. "Ilove 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 blitzevery play if I could."
Alabama can attestto Sylvester's affinity for—and proficiency at—rushing the quarterback. Afterstarting some R-rated trash talk with Crimson Tide All-America center AntoineCaldwell 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 Wilsonwas sacked eight times as Utah rolled the Tide 31--17 to cap off itsBCS-busting 13--0 season.
The Utes face anumber of challenges in trying to approach last season's surprising success,beginning with finding a replacement for quarterback Brian Johnson, who was26--7 as a starter and the Mountain West Conference offensive player of theyear in '08. As fall practice began there was no clear-cut front-runner amongjunior Corbin Louks, who has attempted 15 passes as a collegian; juniorTerrance Cain, a first-team All-America at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas,last season; and Jordan Wynn, a freshman from Oceanside (Calif.) High whoenrolled in January. "The job is unsettled, but in a positive way, if thatmakes sense," coach Kyle Whittingham says. "We have three guys wereally like. We just have to make sure we choose the right one because I'venever been a fan of playing two quarterbacks."
Whoever emerges asthe starter will run an offense that is expected to spread the field even morethan last year with four- and five-receiver sets under newly promotedcoordinator Dave Schramm.
However, thestrength of the team will be the defense, which has seven starters returning.It's a high-pressure unit that blitzes up to 50% of the time and relies heavilyon the lightning-quick Sylvester coming off the edge. In 36 games, including 24as a starter, he has 182 tackles, 19½ tackles for loss and seven sacks.
"He's aplaymaker," Whittingham says. "It has happened ever since his freshmanyear when he intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown in his thirdgame. He's a big-play guy."
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"I WOULD BLITZ EVERY PLAY IF I COULD," SAYSSYLVESTER.
CONFERENCE: Mountain West
COACH: Kyle Whittingham (5th year)
2008 RECORD: 13--0 (8--0 in Mountain West)
FINAL AP RANK: 2
RETURNING STARTERS: 11 Offense 4, Defense 7
3 Utah State
12 at San Jose State
19 at Oregon
10 at Colorado State
17 at UNLV
24 Air Force
7 New Mexico
14 at TCU
21 San Diego State
28 at BYU
Repeating as Mountain West champion will be anything buteasy because of late-season trips to TCU and BYU, but first Utah can show itstill belongs on the national stage with a victory in Eugene.
Perhaps the win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl shouldn'thave been a surprise. The Utes are 11--3 in bowl games, have won their lasteight in the postseason and also count USC, Pitt and Georgia Tech among theirvictims.
DERICK HINGLE/ICON SMI
Utah will go as far as the defense, led by Sylvester, can carry the team.