HENDERSON, Nev. — Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester has turned the Mountain West Conference football meetings into a homecoming of sorts. The Las Vegas native arrived a couple of days early to celebrate his 21th birthday with family and friends.

Since arriving at Utah as a freshman in 2006, the senior All-American candidate has bulked up and evolved into a National Football League prospect.

"He's come a long ways since he arrived on campus as a skinny, 190-pound true freshman," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's developed himself into an all-conference caliber player, and he's going to be one of our team leaders."

Sylvester already is. His teammates elected him a captain last season, a rare honor for a junior.

Whittingham, simply put, says No. 10 epitomizes what Utah football is all about.

It's a compliment Sylvester appreciates.

"I love it," he said. "I made the best decision of my life coming to Utah."

In his first three seasons with the Utes, Sylvester has made 182 stops with 19.5 tackles-for-loss, 10 pass breakups and seven sacks. He stepped up in the Sugar Bowl with seven tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery.

The former Nevada prep star has come of age while transforming his 6-foot-2 frame. Sylvester has bulked up to 230 pounds while reducing his body fat percentage to seven percent. He's hoping to add eight more pounds of muscle before his final collegiate season is complete.

It's part of a process driven by hard work, nothing easy about it.

"Man, it's been rough," Sylvester said. "It's been a great transformation, though, very beneficial."

Sylvester's focus, however, is on team success. He's determined to help Utah's defense improve, a tall task considering the Utes were second in the MWC and 11th nationally in total defense last season.

"We can always do better, and that's what we shoot for. We don't shoot for mediocrity," Sylvester said. "We don't shoot for it to be the same. We always shoot to be better and that's what we are going for this year. We're going for the No. 1 defense in the country. That's what we want."

With eight returning starters on defense, Utah is primed for another big year. That's where the focus is, even though the recent past was quite memorable.

"2008 is in the history books. You'll never forget that. That will be in everybody's minds," Sylvester said of the undefeated, Sugar Bowl championship campaign. "But 2009 is what we need to make a story about. Utah State (Utah's season-opening opponent on Sept. 3) is my focus right now."

And that's not all.

"I love my teammates," he added. "I'm always there for them."

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com