Utes fixing small mistakes as season nears
With nine days remaining before Utah football opens its 2012 season, the Utes continue to fine-tune in preparation for playing Northern Colorado, the beginning of what they hope will be another bowl-bound season.
After an eventful fall camp marked by position battles, the installation of a new offense and a revolving depth chart, coaches and players alike feel the majority of preseason questions have been, at least temporarily, answered.
Aside from the team’s overall depth, which has provided Utah with injury insurance and fostered a competitive training camp, head coach Kyle Whittingham lists last year’s conference experience being finished as an additional strength.
“Last year we had the distraction of the hoopla of the Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “This year that’s kind of died down and it’s just business as usual.”
Among the usual business is an increased focus on fundamentals. The offense is still learning offensive coordinator Brian Johnson’s new spread schemes, and the defense will feature a variety of looks, courtesy of a plethora of talent.
“At the end of the day I feel like we got a lot put in [at fall camp],” receiver Luke Matthews said. “[The offense] is a lot of the same concepts. We are trying to really stress a powerful run game this year again, but I think you’re going to see more variance. It’s not going to be so predictable.
It is going to be a good mix of everything. We have a lot of places we can go with the ball. Now we’ve just got to sharpen up the little things. [I’ve] got to step it up a notch.”
Certainly, Matthews’ teammates took notice of his increased intensity during fall camp, as the senior was named one of four team captains by his peers. He considers it an honor and responsibility to lead a team he calls hungry to cause some conference noise.
“Over the years I have grown into that role. It’s just the way I play and my nature on the field,” Matthews said. “Last year, being just one game away from the Pac-12 Championship, it’s something we look at every day and just know that if we would have pushed a little harder we could have been there.”
Battle of the backups
Although senior running back John White was held out of live action throughout training camp, he is still the undisputed top dog on the Utes’ offense at that position. It was still important, however, for the coaching staff to find out which of the other backs would be listed at number two. Junior college transfer Kelvin York entered camp as the most likely to be White’s backup, but strong running from freshman Jarrell Oliver, fellow transfer James Poole and sophomore Lucky Radley made the offensive staff take a second look.
“Coming out of spring [camp] it was pretty cut-and-dried that Kelvin was the number two guy,” Whittingham said. “Right now, it’s a battle between Kelvin York, who’s had a pretty good camp, and Jarrell Oliver, who had a very good camp.”
Catching (more) heat
Last Saturday’s scrimmage concluded with a vast improvement from the first, yet one area of the highly vaunted defense remained under fire when several interceptions slipped through the Utes’ outstretched hands.
“We have to take advantage of those opportunities and they don’t come along very often,” said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. “When they do you can’t just drop a pick. It’s a game changer.”
As with all of the Utes’ small errors, players are eager to eliminate every imperfection. Defensive end Nate Fakahafua, who dropped two interceptions on the concluding day of camp, stayed after practice to work with the catching machine. Overall, Sitake feels confident in what he calls a polished defensive unit.
“I am really excited going into the season. If all you have to worry about is guys catching the ball, I think you are in pretty good shape,” Sitake said. “For the most part, the other things are pretty good right now. We have always had the same type of defense, the same style. With the talent we have, I think we are going to be fine.”