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Ryan Smith

Cornerback Ryan Smith and wide receiver Thomas Huff have left the University of Utah football program. The juniors informed head coach Kyle Whittingham of their decision before Tuesday's practice.

"Thomas and Ryan decided to go in a different direction," Whittingham said. "We appreciate the contribution they made to the team while they were here and we wish them well."

No reasons were given for the departures.

"Players have changes of heart all the time and for whatever reason they decided they want to go in a different direction," Whittingham explained. " . . . For whatever reason they've made the decision to take their game and their education — whatever the case may be — elsewhere. I'm not sure if they're going to play anymore or not. It's up to them. I haven't talked to them about that."

Smith, who is Diamond Bar, Calif., started his first 17 games at Utah — including all 12 in the Fiesta Bowl championship season. He earned Freshman All-American honors after leading the Utes with seven pass breakups. The right cornerback made 44 tackles and earned Mountain West Conference defensive player of the week honors with seven solo stops against Air Force.

The success, however, didn't carry over into his sophomore season. Smith struggled, lost his starting job and wound up making just 27 tackles in nine games.

This spring, though, Whittingham said Smith was showing signs of regaining his freshman form. After a stellar practice last Saturday and a minor injury that sidelined Eric Weddle, Smith entered the week atop the depth chart at right corner.

"He was doing a nice job," Whittingham said. "He was making some plays."

Even so, the coach added, Smith's departure isn't devastating to the program and the Utes will be fine.

Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen agrees.

"It's not a big deal. We've got good players behind him and we're ready to go," said Andersen, who noted that junior college transfers Mombroso Washington and Eric Shyne are in prime position to capitalize on the situation. "That's life. It's a window of opportunity for those two kids and they need to jump on it and go get it."

Senior Shaun Harper and sophomore Brice McCain, who currently top the depth chart at left cornerback, may also benefit. Andersen said Harper is playing well and McCain is a talented youngster who is coming of age.

"It gives kids more opportunity to come in and compete," Andersen noted. "It's a window of opportunity. We've got good football players here and we'll be just fine."

Unlike Smith, Huff was a relative non-factor in his two-year stint with the Utes. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder from Arizona caught just one pass for 24 yards in his career at Utah. He appeared in only nine games over the past two seasons after a redshirt year in 2003.

"You have to grind every single day and work very hard to play here. Maybe it's not for everybody," Andersen said. " . . . I can't tell you why they did what they did. I just know we've got a bunch of kids here who are very good players and they are going to continue to work hard."

EXTRA POINTS: The Utes practice again Thursday from 3-5 p.m. at the practice fields. If it rains, the session will be moved to Rice-Eccles Stadium . . . Saturday's scrimmage at the stadium will begin at 9:50 a.m. . . . Weddle is one of 42 players nationwide named to the Lott Trophy Watch List.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com