If all goes as planned, a Utah football tradition will fall by the wayside this fall.
Blame it on Mike Wright.
The junior, who currently resides atop the depth chart at middle linebacker, has no intentions of getting a Mohawk haircut something the Utes' starter at that position has done for years.
"That would be a little bit out of his character," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
Wright, a former Bountiful High star and returned LDS Church missionary, isn't a "Mohawk" kind of guy.
"I understand I don't fit the middle linebacker persona," Wright said. "But I try to make my play be what sets me apart as a linebacker and not my look no. No Mohawk."
Wright's leadership comes quietly.
"He's done a nice job being a leader. He's more of a guy who leads by example rather than being vocal," Whittingham said. "He doesn't say a lot. His work ethic is very good."
Wright is the man in the middle of a young linebacking corps that lost fifth-year seniors Joe Jiannoni, Kyle Brady and Malakai Mokofisi to graduation. Wright and fellow junior Stevenson Sylvester are the new team leaders at linebacker. They spend a lot of time watching film together and assisting the younger players.
It's a big change from a year ago when Jiannoni, Brady and Mokofisi ruled the roost.
"The first day of spring ball was a lot different not having those guys there. They're our buddies and we miss them," said Wright, who added that the coaching staff has put him in a pivotal position this spring. "They have kind of identified me as a leader and said that's my position to keep. I've got to keep coming every day in practice. They've reminded me of that. We have a lot of talented younger linebackers in our crew."
So many, in fact, that he's taking nothing for granted.
"There's a lot of guys who can beat me out," he explained. "So I've got to come to practice every day ready to go."
Nai Fotu, Matt Martinez and Jamel King are sophomores to watch, while Mo Neal and Chaz Walker are promising redshirt freshmen. Junior Kepa Gaison is also in the mix.
Whittingham is quick to point out that nothing is set in stone, yet, and that the competition is evaluated every day.
As the upperclassmen, Whittingham said Wright and the other juniors have got to step to the forefront.
"It's just a different role," Wright said. "I'm just getting used to it, but it's a lot of fun. I'm having a lot of fun out here just playing football.
The Utes, he continued, will have more than just new names at linebacker.
"We're a lot faster than in years past, a little bit more athletic," Wright said. "We're just getting our defense down, understanding our assignments and we're going to be ready."
Wright appeared in 12 games last season and made 22 tackles, including 4/5 for loss and three sacks. In Utah's 27-3 win at Colorado State on Oct. 27, he made seven stops and two sacks.
"He's a tough kid both mentally and physically. He's got a knack for making plays. You saw that in the Colorado State game, in particular, last year," Whittingham said. "He's just one of those linebackers who is very instinctive."
Wright can hardly wait for Utah's Aug. 30 season opener.
"We're getting ready to beat Michigan. We've got 150 days or whatever and we're ready to go," he said. "We're getting ready to go into the Big House."
SCHEDULE RELEASED: Utah's 2008 football schedule has been finalized and includes two Thursday night home games Oct. 2 vs. Oregon State and Nov. 6 against TCU. The Utes' home and Mountain West Conference opener is Sept. 6 against UNLV and the season finale at Rice-Eccles Stadium is Nov. 22 at 4 p.m. against BYU.
Utah kicks off the campaign Aug. 30 at Michigan.
Whittingham said the released schedule didn't have any "surprises" in it.
"We're playing all 12 of the teams I figured we'd be playing," Whittingham joked. "It looks like a pretty good schedule."
Whittingham would have preferred facing all nonconference games to begin the season, but he was pleased the Utes' bye was put on Week 9 and that road games at Air Force (Sept. 20) and Wyoming (Oct. 11) weren't scheduled later in the year.
"That's a blessing," he said about the trips to Laramie and Colorado Springs.
Another blessing: Utah plays at San Diego State on Nov. 15.
"It looks like weather," he said, "will not be a big factor in the schedule."BASH BASHED: The planned Gridiron Bash April 18-19 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, featuring a concert by Maroon 5, has been postponed indefinitely. Utah's spring football game will still take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, the 19th. Admission and parking are free. Players will sign autographs after the game.
Inside Utes' spring camp
Date ... Opponent ... Time ... TV
Aug. 30 ... at Michigan ... TBD ... TBD
Sept. 6 ... UNLV ... 6 p.m. ... The mtn.
Sept. 13 ... at Utah St. ... TBD ... TBD
Sept. 20 ... at Air Force ... 2 p.m. ... Versus
Sept. 27 ... Weber St. ... 6 p.m. ... None
Oct. 2 ... Oregon St. ... 7 p.m. ... Versus
Oct. 11 ... at Wyoming ... Noon ... The mtn.
Oct. 18 ... Colorado St. ... Noon ... The mtn.
Oct. 25 ... Bye
Nov. 1 ... at New Mexico ... 7:30 p.m. ... The mtn.
Nov. 6 ... TCU ... 6 p.m. ... CBS C
Nov. 15 ... at San Diego St. ... 6 p.m. ... The mtn.
Nov. 22 ... BYU ... 4 p.m. ... The mtn.
PLAYERS ON THE RISE: Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester made a strong showing during Tuesday's tackle practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The junior was very active, said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. He does a nice job. The coach also said the young defensive front is getting better.
INJURY REPORT: Junior defensive end Koa Misi went down for a bit after taking a helmet to the back Tuesday. Whittingham believes Misi will be OK but bruised. It didn't appear serious, but you never know until you go in and have the doc look at it, he said. So, let's cross our fingers. The coach remained hopeful junior center Tyler Williams will return Thursday after tweaking his shoulder last week.NOTES: Utah's next practice is Thursday from 3-5 p.m. at the practice fields west of the Smith Center ... The Utes scrimmage Saturday from 9-11 a.m. ... All practices and scrimmages are open to the public.
Contributing: Jody Genessy E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]