Utah Utes football: Ute defense enjoys chance to whack quarterbacks
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah freshmen Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen took some hits in Saturday's scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
It was all by design, however.
The quarterbacks were "live" — meaning they could be tackled in the practice, a rarity in recent years because of a lack of depth at the position..
Things have changed. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted the Utes may be as deep at quarterback as they've ever been during his lengthy tenure with the program. Wilson and Hansen are part of a mix getting reps that includes projected starter Jordan Wynn and senior Jon Hays.
The depth, thus, has made it possible for the coaches to put the newcomers in more physical situations.
"We have to see what these two freshmen are capable of when it's completely realistic, when they have a chance to get out of jams and put the ball down and make some runs," Whittingham said. "So you'll probably see that again next week. We're still evaluating."
Although things weren't perfect, Whittingham thought the freshmen made progress — relative to the short time they've been in the program.
Wilson completed 9-of-11 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 20 yards on five carries, scoring on an 11-yard keeper.
"It was a lot of fun. It was definitely a new experience for me. It was good being live and getting used to things," Wilson said, while noting that college defenders have more speed and hit a lot harder than those he faced in high school.
Hansen agreed with the assessment. The former Lone Peak star rushed for 14 yards on five carries and completed 3-of-4 passes for 10 yards and a touchdown.
"You could see that they were able to make a lot of plays," said senior receiver DeVonte Christopher, who joked that Whittingham tends to blow the whistle real early when the quarterbacks are not live.
And with good reason.
"I know the defense really enjoys it when they don't have to be worried about who's live and who's not live," Whittingham said.
Defensive end Joe Kruger appreciated the situation. He recorded three sacks..
After getting off to what he called "a slow start," the junior acknowledged getting out of that mode after getting angry.
"The last two years we haven't been able to be live on a quarterback (in practice)," Kruger said. "So we finally had that chance and I think it's good just because it gets experience going so we're ready to actually go live."
Cornerback Keith McGill headlined the defensive effort with a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown off Wilson.
"I just kind of read it and just picked it," said McGill, who is making a position switch from safety. "Every day is getting a little better but I still have a lot of things to work on."
Same goes, he added, for the entire defense in its bid to be more consistent.
Although some headliners, like defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and linebacker Trevor Reilly, didn't participate in the scrimmage, Whittingham noted the defense did make some plays. Eight players broke up passes and seven made tackles-for-loss.
Even so, Wynn thought things went pretty well for the offense. He completed 11-of-27 passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns — connecting on short scoring strikes to fullback Max Moala and tight end Jake Murphy.
Offensive contributions were widespread. Wide receiver Dres Anderson finished the scrimmage with seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown, while running backs Jarrell Oliver and Harvey Langi topped the ground game with 49 and 42 yards, respectively.
"I think that we're a team that you have to cover all 11 of us," Wynn said of Utah's balanced attack.
In summing up the 97-snap scrimmage, Whittingham noted the Utes "got a lot accomplished" and "a lot of guys made plays." He singled out the performances of Anderson and Langi.
"Harvey's starting to play the way that we envisioned he would when we recruited him," said Whittingham, who also praised the four quarterbacks and the offensive line.
On the negative side, Whittingham listed punt protection and subpar placekicking as shortcomings.
"(There's) areas to work on as always," he said. "But overall it was a very productive, very positive day."
EXTRA POINTS: The Utes resume spring practice on Tuesday . . . Christopher and Oliver had rushing touchdowns . . . Tight end Westlee Tonga scored on a 2-yard reception . . . Thretton Palamo and Joape Pela were credited with sacks . . . Pela, Joseph Smith, Jacoby Hale and V.J. Fehoko each made two stops behind the line of scrimmage. Wykie Freeman, Jared Norris and Hunter Dimick also made tackles-for-loss . . . Eric Rowe, Mike Honeycutt, Dave Fagergren, Mo Lee, Tyler White, Nate Fakahafua. Quade Chappius and Joe Kruger broke up passes . . . Kickers Coleman Petersen and Nick Marsh made field goals from 40- and 24-yards out, respectively.
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