SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago at this time, David Rolf was buried on the Utah football depth chart behind a group of talented defensive linemen that included the likes of Derrick Shelby, Star Lotulelei, David Kruger, Joe Kruger and Tevita Finau.
This year, Rolf finds himself at the top of the depth chart at a brand-new position in front of a talented group of tight ends.
Rolf, who spent two years playing at Michigan State before transferring to Utah, is being counted on as a key contributor in the Utes' new offense.
As fall camp heads into its second week, Rolf is the No. 1 tight end, ahead of such players as Dallin Rogers, who has started at least one game in each of his three previous years and caught 40 career passes, Jake Murphy, who started a couple of games last year, and Kendrick Moeai, who has started 24 games in three years and is coming off shoulder surgery.
"The depth chart is still developing, but David's definitely a guy that's a front-runner," said new tight ends coach Ilaisa Tuiaki. "He brings the most physicality to his position, has size and understands body positioning. He has a natural knack for being physical and knows how to block, which is a huge plus."
Rolf was a wide receiver in high school, "about 50 pounds ago," he said, along with playing the defensive line. At Michigan State he played in all 26 games in two seasons, seeing time at linebacker besides the D-line.
However, last year, when a couple of tight ends went down with injuries, coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Norm Chow decided to move Rolf to tight end.
"He was a receiver in high school, so it's not completely foreign to him," Whittingham said. "He's got a lot of athletic ability, good hands and good size, so to me it was a natural to give him a shot at tight end and see how he did. He was very comfortable from day one, so we made it permanent."
For a player to move from defense to offense is an anomaly for a Whittingham-coached team. Whittingham acknowledged it's almost always the opposite in his program — players usually go from offense to defense — and he couldn't remember the last major player to move from defense to offense. But he said it was a sensible move to make.
"I love David — he's a good kid, he's tough, he cares and he's a great fit for this program," Tuiaki says. "He's a fast learner, he studies on his own time, doesn't take a lot to correct mistakes he's made and he's tough as nails."
So why would a player who saw decent playing time at Michigan State, where he played every game in two seasons, leave it all behind to play out west at Utah?
It turns out that most of Rolf's family lives here and he wanted to play in front of family and friends. Rolf's mother, Lita, is a Kaufusi and her brothers — Rolf's uncles — Jason, Doug and Henry, all played for Utah.
"Michigan State was a great opportunity, but all my friends and family were here," he said. "It's not the same when you get to play and there's nobody there to watch you."
Rolf went to high school in Ohio, where his father lived and was recruited by several big schools before settling on Michigan State.
His father now lives in Utah, so David has plenty of options of where to live among his parents, his grandmother and several aunts and uncles.
"I'm kind of going from house to house, wherever the food's at," he said. "I've got a lot of places to go. I kind of live out of my car."
So does Rolf ever miss playing defense?
"Every now and then I do, but this is a great opportunity and I'm loving it now."
Utah camp report
Day 3: The Utes donned helmets and shoulder pads for the first time in camp during Saturday morning's two-hour practice at Ute Field.
Standouts: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham continued to praise newcomers to the program, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines.
Injuries: Wide receiver DeVonte Christopher was sidelined for the second consecutive day with a slight shoulder sprain. He's expected to be back on Monday.
Overheard: "It was good to get the pads on today, get some physicality to the practice. They handled it well." — Whittingham.