"There's a lot of new players and a lot of new faces," Jordan Pendleton said. "Every time I look out there I feel like I see a new kid every day. It's like, ‘Oh, he's on the team?' So it's fairly new and a lot different than last year, but we have a lot of talent out there. It's just getting everything worked out. I think once we all start playing together and start learning the system, the linebacker group will be stronger. Once we get some of these young kids more experience, knowing the system and confident, it's going to be a good group of linebackers."
Gone are Matt Bauman, Shawn Doman, Dan Van Sweden, Coleby Clawson and Grant Nelson. Returning with little to no experience are Jordan Atkinson, Brandon Ogletree, Jameson Frazier, Jordan Pendleton and Masi Tuitama. Joining them are newcomers Kyle Van Noy, Aveni Leung-Wai and Uona Kaveinga, the latter of which is receiving a lot of reps with the first-team defense despite having to sit out a year due to transfer rules.
"I think we're more athletic than we were last year," Pendleton said. "It's just are we going to be as smart as the Matt Baumans the Coleby Clawsons and the Shawn Domans? Is this group going to be able to make as many plays as those guys did [with us] having more athleticism? I think that's the big question right now. I think once we are able to get this group to that level it's going to be a really good crew."
One player with a lot of upside is 6-foot-4, 240-pound freshman boundary linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has received reps behind Jordan Atkinson.
"Yeah, he's a really athletic outside linebacker that's also a big body," Pendleton said. "He's got a lot of potential and is kind of how I was at this time last year. He's just got to learn how to play at this level and it's a lot different than in high school. In high school I'm sure he was the stud and just lined up and made plays, kind of how I was. There's a lot more that goes into being a good linebacker at this level, and once he learns how to play the game at this level and learns our system he's going to do some really good things. Right now it's just a matter of getting him up to speed as quickly as we can."
One inside linebacker that isn't currently in the program, but will be joining the group soon, is 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound Austen Jorgensen. As a junior he led the state of Utah with 14 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and 115 total tackles.
"I think once we get Austen Jorgensen here, and he's been looking really good over the summer in the workouts, we should have a stronger group of guys to work with," Pendleton said. "He's someone that is really strong and athletic and it will be good to see what he brings to the field when he gets out here. He's been up watching film with us but he's just not practicing out on the field right now. He's not in school right now but he's been here every day, working out hard and being a part of the group as if he was already here. We've had some player-run practices over winter and he's looking really good."
Uona Kaveinga's presence on the field is noticeable not only because of the type of athleticism he brings, but also because he's a vocal leader.
"He won't be able to play with us this year but he's been practicing with the defense and is picking things up pretty quickly," Pendleton said. "Once we get him up to speed in this system he's going to be really good."
Right now the challenge for the linebackers is to develop good group chemistry.
"When it comes to athleticism and ability, I think we have a lot there," said Pendleton. "It's just we have to get everything put together, and it comes with feeling comfortable playing with each other and getting that experience playing with each other. That's the new thing and the big part about this group being successful. We haven't played together before and so we have to take what each of us brings to the group and mold it together as a cohesive unit.
"By the end of last year, for example, me and Brian Logan had this unspoken communication between us. I'm playing outside linebacker and he's playing corner, but he doesn't have to tell me stuff because we are already on the same page. We just know what each of us are going to do even though we don't say it. He doesn't have to make a call to me for me to come off of his guy. We just already know what we're going to do and already have that bond, and this helps us to play at a faster speed because we are precise in our play. Right now, all of these new players are trying to develop that between them. They're trying to understand one another and build that trust and bond between them. I think if we can get this part down we're going to be a really good group of linebackers."
As a more experienced player, Pendleton has taken an active role in observing and instructing some of these talented newcomers.
"It's kind of weird being the old guy among the linebackers," said Pendleton with a laugh. "Time flies by fast. I feel like it's partly my responsibility to help get these guys learn as quickly as possible. That's one reason why I'm out here at practice every day even though I can't practice right now. I want to help teach these guys as best I can. You know, I'm not out here to yell at them or anything like that. I'm just an extra eye for Coach Howell. Right now I can sit there and watch them and pick up on some mistakes and see exactly what they're doing. When they come off the field I can say, ‘Hey, maybe next time do this or do that' and maybe help them so when they're out there the next time they don't make the same mistake."
Pendleton also helps instruct his teammates in the film room.
"I'm up there watching film with them every day and I'm out at practice with them every day," Pendleton said. "I tell all the younger guys that if they ever have any questions or if they ever want to talk about things I would be willing to help. That's kind of how it's always been with the older guys in this program. We also help and do our best to help the younger guys in our program develop as quickly as possible."