Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Utah's Paul Kruger will participate in his first BYU-Utah rivalry game. He grew up in Cougar country and quarterbacked for Timpanogos High, then became a Ute.

It's a homecoming of sorts for Utah defensive end Paul Kruger.

Saturday's game between the Utes and Cougars at LaVell Edwards Stadium will be his first in Utah County since 2003, when he was the star quarterback for Timpanogos High in Orem.

"It's something I'm excited to be part of," Kruger said. "I can't wait for Saturday."

Kruger, a redshirt freshman who served an LDS Church mission in Missouri, is eager to participate in the big rivalry.

"It means a lot. I'm really excited. I've been watching it my whole life, growing up around it," Kruger said. "It's a huge rivalry, and I've got a lot of people down there who know me and a lot of family and friends that are kind of fans of both schools. It's a really big game for me."

When Kruger opted to leave Cougar Country for Utah, he said a lot of folks were a little disappointed and upset about his decision.

Kruger, however, doesn't have any regrets.

"Once you get up here, you're a Ute," he said. "Once you become part of the team, there's no looking back, and there's no second-guessing yourself."

This is who you are, he added, and that's part of a family — with a fan base that extends back to his hometown.

"You'd be surprised," Kruger said.

Teammate Derrek Richards, who is from American Fork, agrees.

"There's a lot of Utah fans down there," he explained while noting it goes both ways. "And there's a lot of BYU fans up here."

The annual rivalry game, he said, draws interest from all sides.

Participating in it, however, isn't intimidating to first-timers like Kruger.

"I don't think it's going to be different than any other game. He's been playing great this year as a freshman," Richards said. "The media likes to say that BYU-Utah is a different game and type, but to players and coaches, it's just another game."

There is a twist to this one, though.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledges that first-timers, especially those from Utah Valley, may have a "little extra incentive" to win the football game.

It's a rivalry, after all, and bragging rights are on the line.

"The state of Utah is gearing up for the big game this weekend, as is always the case this time of year. The Utah-BYU game is one of the nation's longest-running and most exciting rivalries," Whittingham said. "The two schools have had some epic battles over the years, and we don't expect this year to be any different."

Recruiting, Kruger can attest, is another field of competition between the rivals. Both schools have reportedly made offers to Kruger's younger brother, David — a 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end at Timpanogos.

Paul is trying to be supportive and let David make his own decision. His sibling plans to make a choice soon after weighing his thoughts on family, school and football.

Utah and BYU are the front-runners in a recruiting battle that includes some Pac-10 schools and teams back East.

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