SALT LAKE CITY — Growing up in Mesa, Ariz., Utah safety Greg Bird dreamed of playing for the Arizona State Sun Devils a few blocks away over in Tempe.
"I was a fan and hoping I could go there," Bird said after a recent Ute practice. "I always watched them growing up because they were right down the street."
It didn't work out for him, though, and instead Bird headed north to Utah, where he has played safety and has been a special teams phenom for the past couple of years.
This weekend, he'll get the next best thing — a game against the Sun Devils (Saturday 1:30 p.m.) — although it would be even better if the game was in Sun Devil Stadium instead of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"I've been there plenty of times," Bird said of ASU's stadium. "I really wanted to play there — that's where the high school championships were and I love the stadium. I love their grass."
Still, as much as Bird likes Sun Devil Stadium and dreamed of the possibility of playing for ASU, he's more than happy that he ended up at Utah.
"I like it up here," he says with a smile.
Bird has had a long time to become entrenched as a Ute. Bird is one of six 25-year-olds on the team, having first come to Utah clear back in 2005, Kyle Whittingham's first year as head coach. After redshirting a year, he left on an LDS mission and has played the past four years.
After playing sparingly on special teams for two years, he played in every game in 2010, earning starting spots against Air Force and San Diego State and starring on the special teams.
Although he hasn't been a starter on defense, Bird is certainly appreciated by his coaches.
"What a team guy," Whittingham says. "You talk about a guy that will do anything for the football team. He hasn't had a lot of opportunity to play defense, but he's a special teams phenom, one of the best special teams players we've had come through here. He's really the leader of the special teams units. He's unselfish, a team guy and a fantastic special teams guy in all phases."
Safeties coach Morgan Scalley echoes the Utes' head coach, saying, "Greg's the ultimate team player. He understands that there's things he's not able to do physically that some of the other safeties are able to do. He could probably have made the decision to go elsewhere when he wasn't getting playing time, but he stuck with it and is our most valuable special teams player right now."
With the Utes losing both starting safeties from a year ago, you'd think Bird might have been a logical choice for a starting spot this year. Instead, the Utes are going with younger players: sophomores Michael Walker and Quade Chappius, freshman Eric Rowe and JC transfer Keith McGill in a four-man rotation, although Scalley says Bird is still a leader among the safeties and will be used in certain defensive packages.
Bird acknowledges it's "frustrating" not to be able to play as a regular, but he's not complaining.
"Everybody wants to get more playing time and get on the field," he says. "But hey, I play where I play and I'm willing to contribute wherever the team needs me. I love special teams. It's my specialty. Wherever and whenever I get the chance, I'll make the best of it."
As a special teams wizard, Bird plays on both kickoff and kickoff return teams as well as the punt and punt return teams.
Bird has been known as one of the hardest hitters on the team, and Ute fans can remember specific hits by Bird over the past couple of years. The Utes give out "Hit City" hats for the hardest hits during the season, and last year Bird earned five such hats.
And what makes him such a hard hitter?7 comments on this story
"I have no clue," he said. "I just love to hit people. I don't know. That's how I was in high school. I don't think I'm that mean of a guy. When the shot's there, it's there and I take it."
Bird says of the special teams he plays on, he prefers the punt return and kickoff teams because "that's where I get my hits from," he says.
This week, he plans to be laying a few of those hits against the Sun Devils — the guys he once wished he could play with.
Utes on the air
Arizona State (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) at Utah (2-2, 0-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: ROOT Radio: 700 AM