Utes ready to tackle high expectations

What a difference a year makes.

The attitude of U football completely changed with the entry of coach Urban Meyer and the success the team had last season, when it won the MWC title and capped the year with a win in the Liberty Bowl.

Last season, the team was picked to finish sixth in the conference, but will now probably be the odds-on favorite to defend its title. The team was also ranked 14th in the nation in ESPN.com’s preseason poll.

The Utes now have a chance to build on the success and live up to the expectations set for them, as they started spring practice Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s great to get back out here and break off the rust,” U wide receiver Paris Warren said.

Last year, the Utes were in the position of defying the odds, but now they are the kings of the hill, and additionally, they have the pressure of building on their success.

But Meyer doesn’t think so.

“I think a team has more pressure when you are picked sixth in the conference instead of being first,” Meyer said. “You have to build up the program, but we still have to work hard.”

The players have the mindset of just not worrying about the expectations.

“I just don’t think about it, so it doesn’t get to my head,” Warren said.

The advantages that the team has this spring over last are obvious.

Last season the team was trying to learn a new system, but now it has the chance to try to perfect it.

“I think the biggest advantage this year is in the passing game,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “It was so hard last year to learn a new system, especially in terms of intermediate to deep passing, but now we can build on last year.”

The team can build on its success from last year, but Meyer already sees major issues that the team needs to remedy.

“We have a big problem at quarterback since Alex is the only one that has taken snaps,” Meyer said.

In an offense where the quarterback does run the ball, having a serviceable backup is more than necessary.

Last season, opening-day starter Brett Elliott broke his hand and Smith was the backup who came in and claimed his place as the starting quarterback.

Along with the questions at the quarterback position, the Utes also have to address one specific question at running back:

Will Marty Johnson play for the team next season?

After being suspended for most of last season and being out with a knee injury the year before, Johnson was practicing with the team on the first day of spring practice, but is not back on the team.

“He is on probation and he is not back on the team,” Meyer said. “He can do certain things with the team, but I am going to wait before I make that decision.”

Johnson was charged with driving under the influence last season and is in Meyer’s doghouse.

But Meyer was pleased to see him on the field.

“It’s great to see him out there, getting his life right,” Meyer said. “But I am being very cautious with him because once you are burned, you always have to be careful for it not to happen again.”

At this point, Mike Liti is the only running back who has experience.

“We need a good running game to get the passing game going and even though Mike Liti is good, we could use Marty,” said Warren.

The Utes practice 14 more times before playing the annual Red and White game on April 17.

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