SALT LAKE CITY — Keith McGill has quickly caught the attention of Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham. Although the safety didn't join the Utes until just before camp opened, the junior college transfer is making a good transition.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound All-American from Cerritos (Calif.) College currently tops the depth chart at free safety. He reminds Whittingham of former Ute Robert Johnson, who is now with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
"That's his style of play," Whittingham said.
Quite a compliment considering Johnson, who was also a junior college transfer, concluded a three-year stint at Utah with 155 tackles (80 solo), 13 interceptions and five pass breakups.
"Keith McGill is a playmaker coming out of junior college," said Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley. "He's got a lot of range, has got a lot of playmaking ability and he's doing a nice job. He understands that he's got to earn his spot and he's doing a nice job with it."
Although he missed most of Utah's summer conditioning program, McGill is making up ground while getting in shape. He's drawing praise on a regular basis during camp.
Whittingham said McGill and true freshman Eric Rowe, who is also on the depth chart at free safety, are continually making strides.
"They're making plays. They're fast learners. They've picked up the defense very quickly," Whittingham said. "They're both very intelligent and they both have excellent athleticism."
The accelerated learning curve is welcome as the Utes seek new starters in the secondary. At safety, they're filling vacancies left by the graduation of Justin Taplin-Ross and Brian Blechen's move to linebacker.
McGill and Rowe are in a mix of possible replacements that includes sophomore Michael Walker, senior Greg Bird and redshirt freshmen Terrell Reese, Damian Payne and Tyron Morris-Edwards, as well as sophomore Quade Chappuis.
"We've got a good group of safeties, just no experience," Whittingham said of the candidates. "It's a good group of athletes and we've just got to keep them coming along."
Scalley noted that it's the most depth Utah has had at the position since he's been there. Things, thus, are quite competitive — just the way the coaches want it to be.
"We'll put the two best safeties on the field, regardless. If the two best safeties are stacked up at free then we'll move one of them to strong," Whittingham said. "So we're going to get the best athletes on the field."
Nobody, he added, has a lock on anything.
McGill, who made 37 tackles and seven interceptions while earning Northern Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors last season at Cerritos, is maintaining a "positive attitude" while learning Utah's defense.
"It's been good," he said. "All the coaches have been helping, all the players have been helping."
Utah camp report
DAY 4: The Utes practiced with helmets, shorts and shoulder pads Monday morning at the baseball field,
STANDOUTS: Safeties Keith McGill and Eric Rowe continue to make plays. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham also noted the play of wide receiver DeVonte Christopher and running back Tauni Vakapuna.
INJURIES: Defensive tackle Latu Heimuli (ankle) returned to practice. Wide receiver Anthony Denham (hamstring) is out indefinitely.
NEXT UP: Practice resumes Tuesday morning with full pads on the final day of the NCAA-mandated acclimatization period.