SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe the 70-degree weather had something to do with it, but Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was so happy he was ready to do some backflips across the Rice-Eccles Stadium turf after practice Saturday.
For the most part, he was gushing about his team after just the sixth of 15 practices his team will go through this spring.
He was especially happy with the offense, both the passing and running games in scrimmage situations, and couldn’t say enough good things about the offensive line.
“The quarterbacks are functioning at a higher level than ever before, the running backs are ripping off some big runs and the offensive line is dramatically improved from last year,” he said. “That’s very evident.”
OK, not everything was perfect Saturday as Whittingham said his team did “some really, really bad stuff,” which included three fumbles in the first 10 plays and some dropped passes and missed tackles. But he was able to overlook those things because those things are “easily correctable.”
Usually Whittingham is more attuned to the defense, but after last year’s lackluster offensive performance, he’s paying extra attention to the offense this spring.
The first thing most people look at is the quarterback position, and Whittingham says while Travis Wilson is the starter, he doesn’t have the job sewn up.
“Travis is our guy and it’s his job to lose,” he said. “But he’s being pressed — Adam Schulz and Brandon Cox are right on his heels. In this program, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been here five years or five days, the best guy is going to play. There’s no seniority or anything like that. (Wilson) is playing very good football, but so are the other two guys.”
Whittingham was also very pleased with his running backs, even though starter Kelvin York is sitting out with a toe injury. In his place Lucky Radley, James (Bubba) Poole and Karl Williams are getting the reps in practice, and each showed flashes behind the new and improved line.
“Lucky’s doing a great job — between Kelvin, Lucky, Bubba Poole and Karl Williams, we’ve got a very productive group of backs right now,” he said.
Another player who stood out Saturday was tight end Jake Murphy, who caught a pair of touchdown passes.
Several defensive starters are out with injuries right now, but Whittingham is happy with the way backups are stepping up in their places.
“We’ve got to keep working and we’ve got nine left, but so far after six practices I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall progress of the entire team,” he said.
ERICKSON’S EXCITED: Another coach who’s excited about spring practice so far is new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson. He likes the players he has to work with and said the offensive unit is progressing well.
“After two weeks they’re operating this stuff really well,” he said. “I’m real excited about where we can get to. All three quarterbacks are playing pretty well, we’ve got some runners and our front is much better than a year ago. I’m excited about it.”
Erickson said he has simplified the offense and is putting it in piecemeal, which is different from how other coaches often do it.
“I’ve cut things down the first two weeks, the base part of what we do, but we just keep refining it,” he said. “That’s how I’ve always done it. Some people put it all in and come back, but I believe in putting stuff in until you do it well, then go to the next set. If you practice and don’t do it well, then repeat it.”
INJURY UPDATE: Usually there are just a handful of players in the “pit” where injured players must spend practice working on things that won’t affect their injuries. But Saturday there were more like a dozen, including top players such as Brian Blechen, Nate Orchard, V.J. Feheko, Jason Whittingham, Reshawn Hooker and York.
Whittingham and Orchard both had surgeries last week, but coach Whittingham said they’ll both be at full strength by July.
“Half of our starting defense is in the pit, but it’s spring,” coach Whittingham said. “We’ve got to get them healthy and deal with it as long as they’re healthy before fall camp.”
UTE NOTES: Whittingham said Justin Thomas, a freshman from Orange, Texas, is playing very well and would be a starting cornerback right now. The Utes have two placekickers, James Sutcliffe, a freshman from California, and Andy Phillips, a sophomore from Draper, but Whittingham said the Utes have a couple of talented placekickers joining the team in the fall and the “competition won’t be settled" until then. The Utes will practice Tuesday and Thursday and have their first official scrimmage on Friday afternoon. The annual Red-White game, which will be televised on the Pac-12 Network, is scheduled for April 20 at 1 p.m.
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