Utah's gamble pays off with Sylvester

Utah senior linebacker Stevenson Sylvester doesn't hesitate when asked why he didn't get many scholarship offers out of high school.

"I wasn't very good at football," he said.

Utah was the only major offer Sylvester received while at Valley High School in Las Vegas, and the Utes didn't even start recruiting him until midway through his senior year.

What drew Utah to Sylvester was not his football ability -- even coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledges that Sylvester sometimes looked lost on the field. But his athletic ability gave the Utah coaches visions of his potential.

"We saw a raw athlete, and honestly, we based him more on his basketball skills than we did his football," Whittingham said. "He was a tremendous basketball player, very explosive and very quick. And we saw the things on the basketball court that we felt would translate to the football field."

Four years later, Whittingham and the Utes are still reaping the benefits of their recruiting gamble. Sylvester has blossomed into the team's top linebacker, a two-year captain for the Utes and one of the most likable, spirited and inspirational players on the team.

In his younger days, Sylvester wanted to be a running back. He still can remember running through his home in Las Vegas as a child wearing his Dallas Cowboys jersey and pretending he was Emmitt Smith. He said, with a smile on his face, he was afraid of contact.

By his freshman year of high school, Sylvester was interested in football and basketball, but his size limited his collegiate potential in both sports. As a freshman, Sylvester said he was 5-foot-6, 135 pounds. By the time he was a senior, he was about 6-2, 190 pounds.

Through most of high school, Sylvester had little expectation of playing major college athletics. He became a leader by virtue of his hard work but saw a field full of players who had more natural talent, which made him doubt his ability.

But his high school coaches saw differently. His defensive coach, Marcus Sherman, a former grad assistant at BYU, started pitching Sylvester to various schools in the Mountain West.

"My defensive coach from high school, he knew I had the talent," Sylvester said. "I really didn't believe in myself as much as he believed in me.

"Utah was the best offer out of everything. I only took one visit. Coach [Gary] Andersen was initially my third visit, but he bumped it all the way up so it could be my first visit," Sylvester said, referring to the former Utah defensive coordinator and current Utah State head coach. "I only needed one trip to know this is where I wanted to go."

When Sylvester arrived at Utah, he was 6-2, 190 pounds. He's now up to 230 pounds. Whittingham said he wasn't a project because he grasped the playbook quickly and took to coaching, but getting him to fill out his frame was a difficult task.

"He really has a very good aptitude for the game of football," Whittingham said. "So, he picked up our system very quickly. Getting the weight on him was a struggle. I think he started as a freshman at 190 pounds as a Division I linebacker, so he was a little light. But each year he has added to that frame, and you can see his development each year to the point where he's an all-league-caliber linebacker."

Despite his size, Sylvester's drive and personality made him a perfect fit for the Utes' speedy defense. As he put on weight, he earned more playing time. As a true freshman, he played in 10 games, started three and had 23 tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown.

By his sophomore season, Sylvester's potential really started to show. He was second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss and became one of the more aggressive players on the defense.

His play and work ethic were so good that his teammates made him a captain his junior season, the first junior to be made captain since quarterback Alex Smith.

It was an honor that made Sylvester finally feel he belonged. Made him feel he could compete with those players he didn't think he could play with in high school.

"I was always the guy who did all the drills; even if I wasn't good, I did all the drills," Sylvester said. "So people would look up to me. I felt like my senior year I was a leader in high school. Here, I like the role, I love the role. People look up to me to do the right things, and that's helping me out. Just being a leader on this team means a lot."

But it wasn't until last season's Sugar Bowl against Alabama when the nation started to see the same things the Utah coaching staff and players had seen since 2006. In that game, Sylvester played like a man possessed. He notched seven tackles and three sacks and recovered a fumble.

But Sylvester would be the first to tell you that wasn't his finest game. In fact, he'd be quick to tell you he hasn't played that game yet.

"A lot of people would say that's my best game because I made three sacks, but I still messed up in the Sugar Bowl, and nobody noticed that," Sylvester said. "I don't know if that would be my best game. … I was just in a zone in the Sugar Bowl. I was in the zone during the TCU game. That game was a lot of fun. The Oregon State game. I love games like that, when we work hard and come out on top. So I don't know if the Sugar Bowl was my best game.

"For me, to have a great game, you've got to put all the intangibles and my technique and how I played the run and how I played the pass, all that stuff. Not just the glamour sacks or whatever. So I can't just say that's a great game. I really have to look at it."

Sylvester got a job this summer delivering food around Salt Lake City for Jason's Deli.

He'd walk into different businesses, drop off the food, collect money or signatures and be on his way without anyone recognizing him.

It wasn't that he was trying to stay anonymous. There were times when he actually wanted someone to talk to him about the football team or mention the Sugar Bowl or Utah's undefeated season, but the opportunity never came.

"Nobody knows me," Sylvester said. "They just think I'm this big black college kid on a summer job. No one knows me. Unless I've got the helmet or the jersey on. Maybe I should wear my jersey."

Sylvester laughed about how last year he couldn't go anywhere with former kicker Louie Sakoda without Sakoda's being mobbed by fans. That also was true of former players Brian Johnson, Paul Kruger and Sean Smith. But being the guy in the background has come naturally to Sylvester because he has played the role so long.

"I've flown under the radar," Sylvester said. "My whole playing career I've never been the big guy. I'm all right with that role. If I have to play that role, I can play it."

If there's one thing the summer did, it was keep him humble. He's still a guy who can recite every line from the movie "Norbit," which he says he has seen more than 200 times and carries with him on his iPhone. He's still a guy who spends some evenings roller-skating with teammate Eli Wesson. And he's still the guy cracking jokes on the sideline to keep everyone loose, especially in tight games.

But he's also the guy who has learned to expect more from himself than in the past. After years of doubting his own ability, Sylvester by no means thinks he has it all figured out, but now he's more confident in his approach to get there.

"I had a good outing in the Sugar Bowl, but I am far from where I want to be or need to be," Sylvester said. "I'm not that good now. I made some plays, but I still have a lot of work to do."

Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at gwatson.espn@gmail.com.