Robert Johnson isn't resting on his laurels.
There's no time.
Despite a stellar sophomore season, which included being named Bronco Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in Utah's 44-6 win over 11th-ranked UCLA, the preseason all-conference honoree is in a competitive battle with senior Deshawn Richard for the starting job at free safety.
It's a situation Johnson relishes.
"I feel like I should be battling for it," he said. "We play Division I football. It's never like you automatically start. It's not like that."
Players should always be pushed, Johnson said, and nothing given.
"There's nothing free in the world. Everybody knows that," he explained. "It just makes me work harder."
Such talk is music to the ears of Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley. The former Ute recalled his playing days when he and Dave Revill were pushed by newcomer Eric Weddle.
"The more competition you get, the harder they work. I think you just build an edge. There's times where you may think, 'OK, I've got the starting spot.' The tendency, hopefully, is not to get in that mindset and take plays off," Scalley said. "I believe in my guys, but at the same time they are battling. They have their advantages and their disadvantages. They have their positives and negatives."
Scalley said Johnson is the best post player and Richard adds a physical edge. The combination is something Scalley likes. Competition also exists at strong safety where junior Joe Dale is trying to fend off senior R.J. Rice. Senior Terrell Cole is also in the mix.
"I love this crew," Scalley said while praising the safeties for having a great mindset. "They come to work every day. It's what I envisioned coming in, just a great group that care about doing things the right way."
Utah's depth has Scalley hopeful that he'll be able to rotate guys in and keep them fresh. Richard can play both spots, and Johnson said he's trying to learn the strong position better.
The possibilities and combinations with all the candidates at safety add to the intrigue.
"I'm liking it. It's pretty competitive out there. Everybody wants to be out on the field," said Richard, who is confident there are enough snaps to keep everyone happy. "We don't hate each other. We love each other. We just want to push each other. We want the best for each other."
Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen acknowledges it's a highly competitive spot right now. Things could change drastically, however, after the Utes start scrimmaging. The first of three scheduled scrimmages is set for today at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"It's a fight right now. Robert Johnson and Deshawn Richard are locked in a huge fight," Andersen said. "They're splitting reps with the first group right now."
Johnson said the competition has both players working hard and stepping up to the challenge.
"It's going to be a hard choice," he said before noting that whoever gets the job will be backed by an equally good player.
The battle could be a long one, possibly extending into the week of the Aug. 30 season opener at Michigan.
"As long as the competition is heated, we're going to keep letting them play it out and see what happens," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We have no timeline."
Depth and talent have provided a competitive atmosphere at safety.
"We've got five guys, really, jockeying for position," said Whittingham, who added that everybody will be evaluated in the scrimmages.
The Utes, he continued, have got some good battles going on at other positions as well.
While Brice McCain, Sean Smith and R.J. Stanford have established themselves at cornerback, several players are battling for primary reserve roles. There's "not a lot of difference in the next group" featuring Damilyn Tanner, Brandon Burton, Justin Jones and Lamar Chapman.
On offense, Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata are competing for the top running back spot, and two offensive line spots are being contested. Zane Taylor and Tyler Williams want the starting center spot, while Corey Seiuli and Caleb Schlauderaff are listed as equals at left guard. Tony Bergstrom is another lineman to watch.
Whittingham said the camp's scrimmages, where the action is live and game-like situations replicated, will give the coaching staff their best opportunity to make evaluations and solidify the depth chart.
Though details of today's scrimmage have yet to be completely finalized, Whittingham thinks it'll probably have 90 or so live reps."A lot of new guys will be getting those reps," he said, "to see what we've got as far as readiness to play."
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