Liti faces daunting challenge ahead

A suspension here, an injury there-and suddenly, a freshman named Mike Liti is the new starting tailback for the U football team as the Utes head down the stretch run.

Considering that the team came into the season with two potential All-American running backs at the top of the depth chart, this turn of events is about as unexpected as it gets. “It’s not what we expected at all,” U coach Urban Meyer said. “Everything’s fine when you have three tailbacks and eight receivers. But we happen to have four receivers and one tailback right now. That’s it.”

Brandon Warfield’s sprained knee kept him out of most of the Utes’ 47-35 loss to New Mexico on Saturday. While Liti put up 81 rushing yards on 13 carries, the U was not able to control the clock and the pace of the game as it had in weeks past with Warfield in the lineup. The Utes lead the Mountain West in time of possession, but managed to hold the ball for less than 26 minutes against the Lobos, a sure sign that the team missed the inside running game it had depended on so much through the first seven games of the year.

While Liti was thrown into the fire over the weekend, this time around he will have the entire week to work with the first-team offense and get a bit more comfortable as the newly anointed starter.

“The week of practice will help him big time, especially with the stuff he’s not comfortable with, like pass protection,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “But he’s a big time talent. We all knew he has the speed and the quickness, but on Saturday he showed he can really play. He did a great job breaking tackles and getting positive yardage.”

Liti, who was heavily recruited after putting together one of the most productive careers in Orange County, Calif., high school history, has seen some time throughout the season, thanks in large part to the indefinite suspension of Marty Johnson, who was originally supposed to split time with Warfield this season. Liti has made a smooth transition to the No. 2 role, and now he will have to make an even bigger one as the full-time back.

“Brandon stepped up when Marty went down [last year]. Now Mike’s gotta step up now that Brandon’s gone down,” Meyer said. “He’s a kid who’s grown up a lot over the last two months. If you would have told me two months ago we’d need Mike Liti to win, I’d say forget it. But I think we will win this game with Mike Liti.”

As for Liti himself, he seems to be taking the promotion in stride.

“It was totally unexpected. Everything kind of worked out for me, [and] I feel good about it,” Liti said. “The coaches have been preparing me all season. They’ve given me some plays to get me ready, so I’m ready to take over the role. It’s just a shame for Brandon to go out this way.”

The offense does, of course, have a pretty big transition to make this week because the two backs in question have much different styles of play. Warfield was known for his inside running rather than his speed-and it’s in short yardage situations where he really proved his value. Warfield’s longest run of this season is just 30 yards.

Liti, on the other hand, already has a 32-yard run to his credit and is more of a speed runner.

“Mike is an extremely fast player and he’ll give us a little more speed,” Meyer said. “Brandon is obviously bigger. So we have some issues. Brandon is a workhorse and an experienced player. Mike doesn’t have the experience yet. We’ll make some adjustments. How much, I don’t know.”

Smith is obviously aware of the difference between the two players, but he doesn’t necessarily consider that a negative. “[Liti] adds another dimension to the team,” Smith said. “Brandon kind of pounded it in and got tough yards and made people miss between the tackles. Mike has the potential to break some long runs, get in the open field, make people miss and outrun people.”

But losing a player like Warfield is of obvious concern to the Utes, no matter how talented Liti is.

One of the leading contenders for conference Player of the Year honors, Warfield was the leading rusher in the MWC prior to Saturday with 829, and was ninth in the nation in rushing yards per game.

His injury could not have come at a worse time, either. Now that the Utes have dropped their first conference game, every game from now on really is of the essence-and the Utes have won just twice in Falcon Stadium in their history. Liti will have to prove he can carry the full load, or the Utes will be hard pressed to come out of Colorado Springs with a win.

“Saturday’s performance helps, just with the people around him,” Smith said. “We all feel confident that he’ll step and run hard. That, along with the whole week of practice, will make everybody comfortable. It’s not easy, and we understand that, but at the same time we feel confident in him. I’m excited to see what he’s going to do.”

Still, with their two best backs sidelined for one reason or another, the biggest concern isn’t Liti, the offensive line that leaked like a sieve Saturday or even the defense that yielded 407 rush yards.

“The real issue we’ve got is not Mike Liti, it’s that, behind him, we don’t have anybody who’s played,” Meyer said. “We have a lot of confidence in Mike. On that touchdown he scored Saturday, he got hit at the 4 yard line and drove it into the end zone. But Brandon Warfield is a great player, and we miss him.”

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