Under-valued senior linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez combined for 204 tackles last season, and were respectively, the two leading leading tacklers on the team. Walker tallied 113, while Martinez followed with 91.
In their time at Utah, the two have done nothing but work hard, and get better every year. While their statistics, undoubtedly helped along by a strong defensive line, hold up to scrutiny, there seem to be questions swirling around the two, with fans often calling for other linebackers to start in their stead.
With a lack of depth at linebacker in 2010, there was plenty of young talent in the program, but no one ready to step in behind Walker and Martinez come game time. The fact that the two are being challenged for playing time now is not a negative reflection on them. In fact, it is because of them that there are suddenly 10 linebackers who can legitimately contribute in 2011.
"I have 13 or 14 linebackers in camp and 10 who I would feel perfectly comfortable starting for me," defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said early in camp.
Down the line, young linebackers including V.J. Fehoko, Dave Fagergren, Victor Spikes and Trevor Reilly have cited Walker and Martinez as the reason they are in the rotation or even pushing for a starting spot.
Brian Blechen, who is roommates with Walker, credited Walker with his quick transition from safety to linebacker.
Fehoko, while immensely talented and blessed with huge upside, wasn't ready to hit the field last season, spoke plainly about his thoughts on Walker and Martinez.
"[Matt and Chaz] are great leaders. You couldn't find this anywhere else. I think only in Utah would you find guys that will take time out of their day and spend it in the film room with you. example. Guys like Matt who show leadership by t guy in the weight room and the last guy out," Fehoko said. "Then you have guys like Chaz who know this defense like the back of his hand. Then he goes out of his way to tell you what to do so you can get better. If you have guys challenging you every day to come and take their spot, I think that's a special program."
Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake has spoken repeatedly of Walker and Martinez' collective efforts.
"I think we've done a great job of bringing in high-character guys in the recruiting process. We've brought in unselfish guys and guys who care about winning above all else," explained Sitake."They've caught on to the vision of what we're trying to accomplish."
While that praise certainly applies across the board, the comments are aimed at Walker and Martinez, specifically.
"We have guys that are actually teaching their competition and really getting them to try and learn everything. They're making their competition better, which could hurt them in the long run," marveled Sitake. "And the truth is, they don't really care. A championship is more important to them than anything. More important than their own stats, or their own glory. I don't know if I've ever really seen that."
Walker, unassuming and downplaying his role, did acknowledge his leadership role.
"Me and Matt [Martinez] have really tried to take on that leadership role. We have a bunch of young guys behind us that we're trying to move along, and get them to learn the defense," Walker explained. "We're not only trying to lead our group, but lead the defense. Hopefully we can step into that role and make an impact."
Making an impact is an understatement.
Blechen is slated to start at stud linebacker after a shortened transition to linebacker from safety. Fehoko has jumped up the depth chart to backup his mentor Walker. Trevor Reilly is seriously pushing Blechen to start at stud linebacker, after also making a position change from defense end to linebacker, and Jacoby Hale, who came into the program with Fehoko, is Martinez' backup.
According to players and coaches alike, much of that progress and growth is due to, and has taken place under the tutelage of Martinez and Walker.
"I made the move in spring, so it's not a lot of time. So where I am now, has to do a lot with my coaches, of course," said Reilly. "But over the summer, there's no contact [with coaches], so I spent the whole summer in the film room with Chaz and Matt. They basically have just shown me what to do since spring. I have to give them a lot of the credit."
"What Chaz has done for us is obvious, and not so obvious. He's our leading tackler from last year, he's a team leader far beyond what you would expect in that regard," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "He has become everything we hoped he would, and more. Some of that stuff, you can't quantify. He's willing to do whatever it takes to help the football team."
"When you have guys like that, who aren't afraid to teach the young guys, and not just teach them, but turn around and challenge them, push them to beat you out, it's a sign of a great team," raved Sitake. "You can't teach that. Guys either have that in them, or they don't. These guys have it, and it's rubbed off. We now have 10 different guys that are ready to play. You can't put a value on that."