Football team prepares for the unknown

The U football team doesn’t know who its opponent will be Dec. 29 in San Francisco, only that it will be from the ACC.

But even without a clear idea of what they will be facing, the Utes went back to the practice field Wednesday after more than a week off.

With about 16 practices on the slate for the next few weeks, head coach Kyle Whittingham said the month of December will be “like having an extra spring ball” as he and his players get set to represent the MWC in the Emerald Bowl.

Until they know just what to prepare for, the Utes will be running what they call “self-serve” practices, in which they focus primarily on fundamentals and technique.

Practices will include scrimmages between the U offense and defense, as well as the scout team and the non-travel group.

“It was a nice week off, but we’re back in full swing this week,” Whittingham said. “(The extra practice) is gigantic for the young developmental players, and it’s just an excellent time for them to get extra work.”

While the team is still expected to be without wideout John Madsen, who suffered a fractured ankle during the Utes’ 31-27 loss to New Mexico, the team that upset BYU at the end of the season will remain pretty much intact for the bowl game.

Brett Ratliff, after making headlines with his performance against the Cougars, is entrenched as the starter and will now have the next four weeks to prepare for his next opponent.

That is a stark contrast to his first start, for which he was thrown into the fire after Brian Johnson’s injury and had just a week to catch up on a season’s worth of preparation.

“I was excited to get back to practice. I like practicing; it’s fun for me,” Ratliff said. “I’d like to know who we’re playing so we can prepare a bit, but whoever we play, it’s going to be a good game.”

The Utes’ opponent could be announced any day now, and the candidates are down to Virginia, N.C. State and Georgia Tech.

Utah isn’t all too familiar with any of the teams but does have experience with the ACC, having taken on the North Carolina Tar Heels in each of the past two seasons, including a 31-17 loss in Chapel Hill earlier this season.

“They’re all good football teams,” Whittingham said of his three potential bowl adversaries. “Whoever we play is going to be athletic, fast, and we’re just waiting to hear which one.”

Ute players are confident no matter who they eventually play, but are also anxious to find out so they can actually get down to film study and game-planning.

“Yeah, that’s hard (to not know). But we’ve just got to come in here and make sure we execute everything and know what we’ve got to do,” freshman wideout Brent Casteel said. “Once we find out who we play, that’s when we start really preparing.”

Wednesday’s practice lasted a little more than an hour, with shorter-than-usual practices scheduled for the rest of the week before the workload increases in the weeks prior to the Emerald Bowl.

But despite some expected rust considering the week off and a long holiday weekend, Whittingham was pleased with his players’ effort on their first day back.

“They didn’t look too bad,” Whittingham said. “I was impressed with the way they ran and moved around. It was better than I expected.”

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