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Brad Rock: Spring games now more a dress rehearsal than a competitive, tough battle

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 3:04 a.m. MDT

University of Utah wide receiver Micah Thomas runs with the ball during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News) University of Utah wide receiver Micah Thomas runs with the ball during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Standing in the end zone wearing shorts, coffee cup in hand, Dennis Erickson didn’t look like he was preparing for a football game.

Which made sense.

A dress rehearsal, yes. But a for-real football game?

He may as well have been waiting for the next TRAX train.

The Utes held their spring game on Saturday, under partly cloudy skies with 70-ish temperatures. It was a nice way to wrap up their camp; kind of like a company retreat. Barbecue up some food, play a little touch football and bust out the watermelon.

Regulars such as Brian Blechen, Dres Anderson, Jacoby Hale, Jared Norris, Moana Ofahengaue, Nate Orchard and Jeremiah Poutasi suited but didn’t play, due to injury or precaution. Starting quarterback Travis Wilson wore a black jersey, signifying absolutely no contact.

University of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson hands the ball to running back Bubba Poole during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News) University of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson hands the ball to running back Bubba Poole during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

Touch him and it’s 30 days in the stockade.

Which semi-interfered with finding out if he really is game-ready after an injury-plagued 2013. Fans will have to wait until the Aug. 28 game against Idaho State to answer that. Better yet, wait until the Sept. 6 game with Fresno State, just to be sure.

For Erickson, Utah’s running backs coach, it was merely light viewing.

They might as well have been playing miniature golf.

“We always tried to keep it as competitive as it could be,” Erickson said, thinking back on his 45-year career. “I’m in the minority on that.”

Several decades ago, Erickson was a graduate assistant at Montana State. Two years later he was coaching the team’s running backs in the spring game.

University of Utah running back DevonTae Booker eludes defenders during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News) University of Utah running back DevonTae Booker eludes defenders during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

“It was May, and it was snowing,” he said. “That can happen.”

Things got better from there. He went on to Fresno State and San Jose State before landing his first head coaching position, at Idaho, which had an indoor field. Two stops later he was the boss at Miami, where he won two national championships.

The spring games there didn’t involve snow, but they did include contact.

“Those guys would kick my rear if it wasn’t a full game,” Erickson said.

This stuff at Utah?

Strictly cotton candy.

Over 12,000 fans showed up on Saturday, some actually tailgating beforehand. It was a respectable turnout. Not like Penn State, where they got 70,000, or several others that drew more than 60,000 this year. Still, Utah has seldom been known for its serious spring games. One year the Utes played against the alumni, among them 280-pound Jack Campbell, who went on to play one game in the NFL.

University of Utah running back DevonTae Booker eludes defenders during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News) University of Utah running back DevonTae Booker eludes defenders during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

When he returned for the spring game, he parked a beer on the sideline so he could take a periodic sip.

OK, so the stakes weren’t high.

On Saturday, the alumni game was at noon, highlighted by the quarterbacking of Darnell Arceneaux, who made it through the game uninjured — something he barely did in college. That followed the MUSS game, comprised of anyone from the student section wanting to do something besides tip goalposts.

The Red-White game was more of what Erickson predicted beforehand.

Not really a game at all.

“Yeah, that’s how I feel about it,” Erickson said beforehand. “But that’s the way things are now. You can’t do it, physically. We got some guys hurt in spring, our linebacking corps is down, our receiver corps is down, so you can’t go play the game all-out.”

University of Utah running back Troy McCormick runs with the ball during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News) University of Utah running back Troy McCormick runs with the ball during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

The biggest cheers of the day were on a couple quick outs that went for 56 and 71 yards and another 46-yard throw. But nobody roughed the kicker or even returned a kick. The only sacks were the slow-mo variety. Wilson played less than a half, passing for 116 yards.

Long ago, Montana Tech had the alumni play its first string for the spring game. Only a few years removed from his quarterbacking days, Erickson agreed to participate.

“I think I’m still sore,” he said. “That’s probably the reason they cut out alumni games. It was full contact. I got the heck kicked out of me.”

This time he was in no such danger, standing arms-folded on the sideline.

The only chance of injury — to him or anyone else — was tripping on the turf.

University of Utah quarterback Brandon Cox runs with the ball during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News) University of Utah quarterback Brandon Cox runs with the ball during the Red vs White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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