Football Notebook

By By Bryan Chouinard and By Bryan Chouinard

By Bryan Chouinard

If you build it, they will come
To say that Ute fans are excited about this year’s season opener would be an understatement. As of Friday, only 500 tickets remained for Thursday’s clash with in-state rival Utah State University, which will kick off the 2009 campaign for head coach Kyle Whittingham and his Utes.
Last season, Utah averaged standing-room-only crowds, which turned Rice-Eccles Stadium into a hostile environment for any and all visiting opponents8212;and 2009 seems to be no different. Seats to see the defending Sugar Bowl Champions are going fast. In fact, there are no chairs8212;only bleachers8212;available for not only the Utah State matchup but also for the Louisville and Air Force games.
This season marks the fifth year for Whittingham at the helm of the Utes and the fifth year in a row that Utah has set a season-tickets sales record. In 2008, Utah sold 30,547 season tickets but has already sold more than 31,000 for the 2009 campaign. Pair that number with tickets sold for the MUSS and other student tickets, and roughly 42,000 of Rice-Eccles Stadium’s 45,017 seats have already been sold for this year’s home games.
With 93 percent of the stadium’s seats already sold, tickets will be hard to come by for those who haven’t already locked up their seats. Only 800 tickets are still available for the Utes’ next home game against Louisville on Sept. 26.
Injury update
So often in football, both at the professional and collegiate levels, key players lose their season to injury in fall camp before the season even begins. For the Utes though, this is not the case. The Utes have made it to the season opener relatively healthy, with an injury list only three players deep. Defensive end Koa Misi is still listed as questionable, but Whittingham is taking a “wait and see” approach with the team co-captain.
“Koa is still a question mark,” Whittingham said. “That will have to be a game-time decision.”
Other than Misi, both starting guards8212;Caleb Schlauderaff and Walter Watts8212;have been out with knee injuries. Schlauderaff is still listed as questionable, but Watts has been upgraded to probable as of Monday.
Normally, Schlauderaff would start at left guard while Watts and freshman Tevita Stevens would rotate at right guard, but come Thursday, it might be Stevens at left guard with Watts at right if he is cleared by team doctors.

Filling the void

With Sean Smith selected in the second round, and Brice McCain picked in the fifth round of last year’s NFL draft, the Utah secondary will be featuring two new starting cornerbacks this fall. Senior R.J. Stanford and sophomore Brandon Burton will be expected to step in and soften the blow of losing both of last year’s starters.
“We lost Sean and Brice, who were outstanding players,” Whittingham said. “Those will be big shoes to fill.”
Whether the tandem effort of Stanford and Burton will be as effective as Smith and McCain were remains to be seen, but the two new starters will have no lack of speed. Stanford and Burton are the two fastest players on the team, running 40s in 4.30 and 4.33, respectively.
Speed won’t be the only the advantage the new starting corners will have. They will also have a reliable and strong safety net across the middle of the field in free safety Robert Johnson and strong safety Joe Dale. Johnson, who’s in his third year as a starter, was selected to the preseason All-Mountain West Conference Team while Dale led the secondary in tackles in 2008, recording 66 stops on the season.
Familiar faces in new places
Come Thursday night, when Whittingham and his team look across the field to the visiting sideline, ex-Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen won’t be the only familiar face looking back at them. In fact, including Andersen, there are eight former Utah coaches, assistants, graduate assistants and players on the USU coaching staff, four of whom were with the team last season. Ilaisa Tuiaki, Evan Simon and Steve Mathis all followed Andersen to USU at the conclusion of last season.
Tuiaki, who was a graduate assistant last season at the U, will act as Andersen’s running back coach while Simon will be a strength coach for the Aggies, as he was for the Utes. Mathis was a defensive administrative assistant during his time with the Utes, but will now be USU’s director of football operations.