Are Gionni Paul and Jared Norris the best LB’s in Utah Football history?
Do G-Bo and BabyChuck belong on the Mount Rushmore of Utah Defensive players?
That’s hard to say. Most folks who listen to the show know I’ve never been a fan of comparing players across eras. Everything was different back in the day. Schemes, nutrition, conditioning, and film study have evolved quite a bit over the years, even in the decade since I finished playing football there are aspects of preparation and whatnot that I and my contemporaries would deem practically unrecognizable. Fans typically have biases based on most recent events anyway, but let’s look at the competition just for fun.
Stevenson Sylvester helped anchor one of the best defenses in Utah history and carved out a respectable career for himself in the NFL. He was young and undersized when he first took the field as a Ute, but grew into a formidable tackler and dynamic playmaker before his career was done.
Mark Rexford tallied 220+ tackles and forced 6 fumbles in two years as a starter. He was named 1st-Team All-WAC in 1994. He was only at Utah for 2 years, would another two have made him more of a legend in Ute lore?
Mark Blosch was a 3x All-Mountain West selection and tallied nearly 500 tackles in his Utah football career in the early 80’s. The quintessential tough guy wore Number 60 on his jersey, so you know he was never concerned about style points.
You can’t have a great LB discussion without mentioning Anthony Davis, All-Conference honors and a post-Utah stop with the Green Bay Packers meant that many linebackers who came after him were compared to Davis.
John Huddleston had a 157 tackle season in 1974. He was a tackling machine, but a glance at his career stats tells you he didn’t have Gionni Paul’s knack for the big play or even Norris’ propensity for TFL.
Kautai Olevao was known for his huge hits and impact plays more than racking up great stats. His highlight reel might still be the best in Utah Football history. I was in high school when he roamed the Utah Defense and remember #43 being a terror, particularly against BYU.
My buddy Spencer Toone was an essential part of the undefeated Fiesta Bowl Defense in 2004 and followed up with a First-Team All-MWC year in his senior season. He was also an Academic All-American (and the closest thing to a real-life Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde that Utah has ever seen)
In no particular order, those men are the cream of the linebacking crop in Utah football history. I may have missed a few, but none that immediately jump to mind.
When you look at singular game stats, season tallies, career numbers, and across the board impact for Utah LB’s a couple of things stand out. A. this is not “linebacker U”. There have been plenty of really good ones, but GREAT is hard to come by. D-Line is the legacy position at Utah, and probably always will be. And B. Gionni Paul and Jared Norris at least belong in the conversation for their individual accomplishments.
As a duo? There is no question these two are the best that have ever shared a spot behind the Utah D-line. I could rattle off numbers and examples to prove the point but try this exercise instead. Listen to a Utah football game on ESPN 700 and take a tally of how often their names are mentioned. About 40 percent of the total defensive plays that Utah is on the field, you’ll be forced to make a count of a tackle for one or both, an assisted stop, a pressure on the blitz, a batted ball, every once in a while a forced fumble or an interception. Perhaps the biggest play of the Utes win over Washington was Gionni Paul’s scoop-and-score TD. Of course, it was Jared Norris who forced that fumble, on a tackle in pass coverage by the way. Both of them excel at that, running with backs, slot receivers, and tight-ends. No easy feat for a guy like G-Bo, who only stands 5’10”. Or for Norris for that matter, whose 240 lbs and run-stopping build don’t often translate to elite speed and agility (even with a knee brace on).
Devontae Booker is clearly the best overall player on the Utah football team, but Justin Ena’s starting LB duo are a very definitive 2A and 2B. I’ll let somebody else decide how to rank them, both against one another and in the context of Utah Football All-timers. One thing is for certain; they’ll be extremely difficult to replace as individual players and virtually impossible to as a tandem. Both #13 and #41 are a true pleasure to watch play, and even to interview. Two individual once-per-decade talents that somehow ended up on the same team as seniors and continually combine for game-changing plays, like Voltron, or Power Rangers (depending on how old you are).
So are Gionni Paul and Jared Norris the best LB’s in Utah history? Probably.
Are they the best to ever play together? Certainly.
Will they be immortalized as part of a team that achieves a major milestone like Stevenson Sylvester’s Sugar Bowl? Or Spencer Toone’s Fiesta Bowl?