SALT LAKE CITY — Less than a week after helping lead Lone Peak High to the 5A state basketball title earlier this month, Chase Hansen was navigating his way through the large University of Utah campus as he began taking classes and practicing with the Ute football team.
Hansen is one of three Ute players in spring drills who should be finishing up his senior year of high school, but is getting an early jump on his college football career instead. It's a recent trend in collegiate sports — athletes beginning their college careers sooner, even when they normally would still be attending high school.
Besides Hansen, fellow quarterback Travis Wilson and defensive lineman Hunter Dimick are both enrolled in classes at the U., while their friends back home are finishing up their senior years.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says the practice started about five years ago and that gradually more and more players are opting to start early. And not everyone can. Players must be good enough students to finish up their credits early in order to start college and be approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
"I think it's a positive," Whittingham said. "From an academic standpoint, the transition from high school to Division I football, learning how we do things as far as working in the weight room, just how we do things on a day-to-day basis — it's a big benefit to those guys."
Whittingham acknowledges it's not all positive and that the main tradeoff is the player's social life and "maybe missing out on a few things." But he says he and his staff are sensitive to that.
"We try to be very accommodating and do whatever we can do to excuse them and let them participate in those things," he said. "They've done their part by getting their work done early and getting here. So if they have a prom or whatever the case may be, we want them to do that."
That's exactly what Dimick did last Saturday, going back up to Syracuse so he could attend his school's prom. Hansen said he's planning to go to his prom at Lone Peak in May.
Getting to the prom is more of a problem for Wilson, who hails from San Clemente, Calif. But he says he's OK with it.
"I definitely miss my friends back home, but I'm glad to be here and be part of the team," he said. "It's a little far away, but I love it here. Everyone on the team is great and super-friendly, so I definitely feel at home. I'm ready to start my new chapter in life."
Wilson, who starred for San Clemente High, has been at the U. the longest, enrolling at the start of the semester in January. He had to finish his English class requirements in order to graduate early. He said while the U. coaches recommended he do it, it was "definitely my choice. I wanted to come in and do it ... and start practicing."
Because he didn't start school until midway through the semester, Hansen is taking classes such as bowling and yoga. He has nothing but positive things to say about getting a head start on his collegiate career.
"It was a little bit of a transition, but I couldn't be happier playing football," Hansen said. "I love it. I'm here in the spring, getting the feel of it and getting going and being up here is awesome. I'm extremely pumped I'm here playing football right now."
Dimick said he had to take English classes online to graduate and while he says he misses high school "a little bit," he also said, "I'd rather be out here."
Besides helping his program with players getting a jump on their freshman seasons, Whittingham says playing in spring ball helps the individual players in the long run.
"You get a bonus semester of school, a bonus spring football — everything is a bonus," he said. "Oftentimes these guys that come early have a degree in hand and are halfway to a master's degree by the time their eligibility runs out because of the extra schooling."
Whittingham is concerned that everything is "accelerated" from the way it used to be, noting that 10 or 15 years ago, programs would know just a handful of recruits two weeks before the signing day and now all the recruits are locked up before the season even starts.
But he can't see players starting school any sooner than they are now.
"I don't see kids skipping their senior years to go to college," he said with a laugh. "I don't see it going beyond this. We're maxed out as far as that goes. I certainly don't want to accelerate it any more."
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