**Writer’s note: After my previous article and a subsequent podcast, it was brought to my attention that Utah’s school nickname is a reference or homage of sorts, to the Ute Indian Tribe. My assumption - which was incorrect - was that the term referred to citizens of Utah, and I jokingly made fun of it (think Ohio Ohioans). This was an attempted tongue-in-cheek jab at Ohio State’s opponent, and in no way intended to put down the Ute Tribe. My apologies to anybody who was offended. With that, I guess I’ll just go ahead and say it: Go Utes!
On New Year’s Day, the Utah Utes will be looking for a victory over Ohio State in what is looking to be more or less a home game for the Pac-12 champs. It is the program’s first-ever Rose Bowl appearance and a win over OSU would be a great way to cap off a historic season.
And while many might view a Utah win tomorrow as an upset, I am not one of the many. I believe that the Utes are a heck of a football team and a nightmare matchup for the Buckeyes. As I wrote earlier in the week, Utah plays a very similar style to that of TTUN — which does not bode well for Ohio State, given what we saw in Ann Arbor. While I certainly hope for a rebound, I fully expect this to be a difficult challenge for the Buckeyes.
Utah bears a resemblance to TTUN on both sides of the ball. On offense, the plan is pretty simple: run, run, run, and then run some more — and dominate your opponent in the trenches. The simplicity of the gameplan does not make it any easier for opponents to stop, especially when the Utes boast such a dangerous stable of runners. They also have a solid line up front, but I expect the Buckeyes to play much better did in the regular season finale, and to do so with much more “piss and vinegar.”
On the other side of the ball, Utah possesses a stout defense and plenty of individually talented players. Defensive ends Mika Tafua and Van Fillinger combined for 15 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss, leading an attack up front which contributed to a top-10 national sack total.
Former OSU commit Clark Phillips III was credited with 12 passes defended on the back end, and he is flanked in the secondary by fellow corner Vonte Davis, safety Brandon McKinney, and other talented DBs. Those defensive backs helped keep opponents under 200 yards per game passing. The unit as a whole is very good, but one player in particular makes them a force to be reckoned with; his name is Devin Lloyd, and he is this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.
I say this with no exaggeration: Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd might be the most disruptive defensive player that Ohio State has faced all season. Yes, that includes Aidan Hutchinson and George Karlaftis, and it would have included Kayvon Thibodeaux, had he been healthy when Oregon visited Columbus. Lloyd can make plays at every level, and he is around the ball on nearly every play.
Traditional, second-level linebackers like him only come around once every handful of years. I’m talking Patrick Willis, Luke Keuchly, and Bobby Wagner types. And while I wouldn’t quite put Lloyd in that group yet, he does impact the game — at the college level — the way that those future NFL Hall of Famers did (and still do, in the case of Wagner) at the next level.
Utah’s coach Kyle Whittingham called Lloyd, “The best defender that’s ever come through the University of Utah, at least in the modern era.”
NFL Draft guru Daniel Jeremiah referred to him as an angry missile with long arms, which is possibly the greatest compliment I have ever heard for a defensive player. ESPN’s Todd McShay has the fifth-year Ute projected as a top-15 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. I would just call him a nightmare to scheme for, and compare him to former LSU linebacker and fifth overall pick Devin White.
I've been studying Utah LB Devin Lloyd tonight. He's an angry missile with long arms.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 21, 2021
Lloyd was a three-way player in high school (this man was a punter!), and originally committed to Utah as a safety. He put on about 20 pounds, learned to take on blocks, and the rest is history. He has steadily improved each year, and finally earned consensus All-America recognition for his breakout season. This season might be the first for which he has received national honors, but Lloyd is far from a one-year wonder.
In 2019, Lloyd totaled 91 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks to go with one interception, which he returned 64 yards for a touchdown. During a shortened 2020 season, he averaged over nine tackles per game on his way to 48 total. He added 10 TFL (in just five games!) and two sacks.
This year, he has taken it up a notch… or four. In 13 games so far, Lloyd has 107 tackles, 22 TFL (no, that is not a typo), 7 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 6 passes defended. He returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns. The best draft-eligible linebacker in the country had 22 tackles for loss! He is a menace all over the field, which Ohio State will have to account for if they want to keep C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, and others upright.
What makes Lloyd so special is his versatility. He is not just a tackling machine in the box; although I would argue that tackling efficiency is his biggest strength. He has significantly improved both his coverage and pass rushing abilities. Whereas he was previously pegged as a two-down linebacker at the next level, NFL scouts now see him as a guy who can remain on the field regardless of down and distance. With his improvement in both of these areas, he is now one of the more complete linebackers you will see coming out of college. Those are just the tangible parts of his game.
As a leader, Lloyd is revered by his coaches and teammates. He plays hard late into games and holds himself and others accountable on the field. He has great football instincts, evidenced by his ability to read plays and get to the ball. And what I probably appreciate most about Lloyd is his work ethic. Once a three-star safety prospect, he has turned himself into an upper-echelon Power 5 collegiate linebacker. He could have left for the NFL after last season, but — like Chris Olave — returned to college to improve his game and chase victory.
Devin Lloyd will be a presence on Saturday; there are no two ways about it. If Ohio State can get him in coverage, or keep him occupied off the line of scrimmage, they can attempt to play away from his main strengths… but that is a tall task, and not many teams are able to keep Lloyd from filling up the stat sheet.
Lloyd will be looking to close his career out strong and to help Utah accomplish something very special in program history. I think Buckeye fans would love to have this guy on their team, but come New Year’s Day, they’ll have to hope the OSU defensive staff can find a way to neutralize him like no one else has this season.