Utah Utes football: Utes must tackle sudden void at middle linebacker
The first day in pads provides opportunity to knock off the rust
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first spring practice in pads didn't impress head coach Kyle Whittingham much.
"We've got a lot of work to do," he said. "It's very obvious on both sides of the ball that we've got a lot to accomplish throughout spring."
After two practices without gear, which the Utes used to install a lot of things and focus on mental preparation, Saturday's session had a different intensity.
"When you get the pads on, that's real football," Whittingham said. "Today was the first day, and we were rusty."
That doesn't mean, however, that the Utes aren't working with a clean slate in some areas.
Two days following Nai Fotu's season-ending knee injury, a spirited search for a new starting middle linebacker is under way.
Junior Matt Martinez and several other guys are competing for the job.
"It's going to be linebacker by committee — most likely — unless something changes," said Whittingham, who noted that highly touted prep signee V.J. Fehoko will be a factor when he joins the mix for fall camp.
So, too, could Texas high school product Jacoby Hale.
Losing Fotu, Whittingham acknowledged, is costly in terms of inspiration, passion and leadership. The silver lining, though, is Fotu has a redshirt year to use.
"Nai was important but we've just got to move on and plan on him being here in 2011," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "He'll be fine. He'll get back in shape and be ready to go."
Whittingham considers Fotu's injury a fluke. The senior planted wrong in practice and just got twisted, he explained.
The injury, which Whittingham said will require extensive rehabilitation, has created a critical vacancy. Sitake said Martinez, Chaz Walker and Jamel King are currently the top candidates to fill the post.
"I think we'll just battle it out and see who the best one is," Sitake explained while noting that everything could change.
Since all five linebackers on the depth chart, which includes outside frontrunners Chad Manis and J.J. Williams, are familiar with all three positions, the coaching staff has flexibility.
"We'll rotate it and see who is the best one. Honestly, I'm just trying to get everybody ready to start. I'm trying to get five guys prepared to start at that one position," Sitake said. "We'll put the best three (linebackers) on the field. That's always been our motto, and I've got to stick to it. I feel really good about those guys."
The Utes, he continued, have never really had a problem getting linebackers ready to play. Sitake noted that when Joe Jiannoni graduated from the middle linebacker spot a few years ago, a somewhat inexperienced Mike Wright stepped in and led the 13-0 Sugar Bowl championship team in tackles.
"It doesn't have to be one guy, but whoever is in there has to run the show," Whittingham said. "It's a lot like the free safety spot. Those are the two positions on defense that get things set for you."
Things, he added, may begin to sort out at various positions after a couple more tackle sessions.
"We'll find out a lot more about our team in the next two padded practices and we'll see what happens," Whittingham said.
EXTRA POINTS: Saturday morning's practice was held at the Spence Eccles Field House. ... The next sessions are set for Tuesday and Thursday. Spring break follows with practices resuming on March 29. ... Safety-turned-running back Victor Spikes suffered a minor knee injury and may not return until after spring break.
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