Polish those cleats (Football)

The slate is clean. Nearly a dozen starters have departed and the up-and-down 2005 season is all but forgotten. Now, the U football season looks toward 2006-and preparation for the upcoming season begins Saturday morning as the team opens up spring practice.

As usual, the Utes will start slowly, practicing without pads for the first few days before going full contact next week. U head coach Kyle Whittingham, now entering his second year at the helm, says the opening weekend of spring ball is about getting players acclimated to the team’s system, particularly the newcomers.

“The first few days, it’s a lot of installation, getting schemes, both offensively and defensively, put in,” Whittingham said. “There’s no gear on the first few days; it’s just helmets and shorts, so there’s not much you can do. But they’re big teaching days and big learning days.”

Whittingham said he hopes to get most of the team’s various schemes installed over the first two days of practice so his players will be ready to put on their pads Tuesday.

The team will have a full week-and-a-half to prepare before the first intrasquad scrimmage, which will be held at Rice-Eccles Stadium on April 8.

Another scrimmage will follow a week later before the annual Red-White game April 22.

Of primary interest is the Utes’ quarterback position, which is up in the air and features a glut of candidates for the position. Last year’s starter, Brian Johnson, is still recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL, an injury he suffered in a late-season loss to New Mexico.

Three other quarterbacks will be in competition for the starting job. First and foremost among those-and perhaps the early favorite-is senior Brett Ratliff, who came in after Johnson went down and led the Utes to upset victories over BYU and Georgia Tech.

Also in the mix is strong-armed Oklahoma recruit Tommy Grady-a six-foot-seven, 233-pound specimen-and redshirt freshman Kevin Dunn, a longshot because of his inexperience and youth.

“Obviously, the quarterback situation?won’t be settled by the end of spring because Brian will not be participating in spring to any major extent,” Whittingham said. “That’s not going to be a solidified position, but it will be a good opportunity to evaluate the other three quarterbacks, find out exactly what they can do.”

With the departure of tailback Quinton Ganther, the running-back position is also in flux, as three little-used backups from last year’s squad are in the mix to replace him-former USC back Daryl Poston, sophomore Darrell Mack and junior Mike Liti. While none of the three has a leg up on the position at the moment, Whittingham said each of the three “brings something different to the table,” and that they could all see significant playing time this fall.

“Someone’s got to step to the forefront and take command of that position,” Whittingham said. “Poston is more of a homerun back, he’s extremely fast, great quickness, can go the distance every time he touches the ball?Mack is more of a downhill, tackle-to-tackle type runner. He’s a very tough runner, a very physical runner?Mike Liti is exceptional all-around, he catches the ball well, he runs with the football well, he’s excellent in pass protection.”

The team is also looking to fill voids along the offensive line, as well as linebacker and cornerback. Spring practice will run for five weeks before full-time practice begins in August.