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Utah Utes football: Team still seeking solutions at wide receiver, safety

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 3:52 p.m. MDT

University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham shouts instructions to his players in the annual Red and White spring football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday.  (August Miller, Deseret News) University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham shouts instructions to his players in the annual Red and White spring football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (August Miller, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah football's spring camp is complete. Saturday's Red-White Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium capped things off.

What it didn't do, however, was put an end to head coach Kyle Whittingham's main concerns. He said solutions at wide receiver and safety are "still a work in progress."

With new players joining the mix at both positions this fall, ultimate answers are still months away.

"What we are doing is trying to develop depth right now," said safeties coach Morgan Scalley, who added that senior Justin Taplin-Ross will be the starter at strong safety. The free safety competition, though, will likely continue throughout fall camp.

"Guys got better. I like the group," Scalley said. "But we need to develop a little more depth."

Freshman Damian Payne, who graduated from high school early and enrolled at Utah in January, is among those who made strides in spring ball. He had a pass breakup Saturday in the Red-White Game.

University of Utah player DeVonte Christopher just misses catching a touchdown pass during the annual Red and White spring football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday.  (August Miller, Deseret News) University of Utah player DeVonte Christopher just misses catching a touchdown pass during the annual Red and White spring football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (August Miller, Deseret News)

Youth also made an impact at wide receiver. Sophomore DeVonte Christopher (38 yards) and redshirt freshman Griffin McNabb (61 yards) caught touchdown passes from Terrance Cain in the second quarter.

"We're going to be good this year and we've got some dudes coming in (this fall) who should be pretty good," Christopher said. "We are going to compete. I feel like the guys here can compete with anyone in the nation. I feel the receivers are going to be one of the strong points of our offense."

Bright spots were plentiful at various positions this spring. Among those singled out by Whittingham, besides Taplin-Ross and McNabb, were defensive tackle Neli A'asa, tight end Westlee Tonga, offensive tackle Percy Taumoelau and defensive back Conroy Black.

"We had a bunch of guys that played very well," Whittingham said. "It was a very positive spring."

Now comes offseason conditioning, which begins June 1. Whittingham said the summer program, as usual, will be big.

"(It's) instrumental to our success," he explained. "That's the next phase."

The Utes do so on the heels of solid development at quarterback. Although returning starter Jordan Wynn took just two snaps Saturday before leaving the game with a sore shoulder after diving for a fumble, backups Cain and Griff Robles each posted good numbers. Cain was 14-of-16 for 217 yards and two touchdowns, while Robles was 18-of-26 for 234 yards and a score.

"We have great confidence in all three of those guys. They all have different skills sets. So we'll have to find different ways to play them," said quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. "They're all good football players and that's a very fortunate situation for us to be in."

Johnson noted that Wynn and Cain, who were last season's starters, have made big strides in terms of decision-making and leadership.

"That's something that I wanted to focus on with those two specifically throughout the course of the spring," Johnson said. "To continue to develop to be the leader of this football team and continue to make great decisions with the football in their hands."

The Utes, as a whole, impressed Johnson over the past several weeks.

"Definitely. I thought they had a great spring on both sides of the ball. They competed hard each and every day," he said. "They did what they needed to do to come out here and make themselves better football players. That's the thing about spring ball — develop depth and see what you have going into fall camp."

Players report Aug. 4 in preparation for the Sept. 2 season-opener at home against Pittsburgh.

EXTRA POINTS: Johnson had a good day. Before coaching the Red squad to victory, he guided teams to victory in the MUSS and Alumni flag football games. ... Johnson and Scott Mitchell were the quarterbacks in the Alumni game. ... U. alumni Eric Weddle (San Diego Chargers) and Sione Pouha (New York Jets) were among those watching from the sidelines.

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com

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