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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Backup quarterback DeVonte Christopher has the ball stripped away by Junior Tui'one during the Utes' scrimmage Saturday.

After Utah's second scrimmage in five days, head coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged that progress had been made.

Nothing dramatic, he added, but noticeable.

"We definitely did see improvement," Whittingham said. "But we've still got to take what we've done the last two weeks and make that much improvement again in the next two weeks."

Time is becoming a factor as the Utes' Aug. 30 season-opener at Michigan approaches.

"We're still not where we want to be," Whittingham said following Saturday morning's 65-snap situational scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium. "But we're starting to see some separation now. We're starting to get a good idea who our ones and twos are."

Topping the list is tailback, where senior Darrell Mack has emerged in a tight battle with junior Matt Asiata for the top spot.

Whittingham said with Asiata being on the shelf for so long (including both scrimmages) with an ankle sprain, Mack took a step forward.

"Darrell's been there each and every day working hard," said Whittingham, who explained that if the Utes lined up tomorrow Mack would by No. 1 and Asiata No. 2.

Though there's a chance anything can happen, he continued, Asiata is running out of time.

"You've got to be on the field. If you're not on the field, you can't compete," Whittingham said. "No one feels worse about it than Matt."

Asiata returned to practice on Friday, but is still only 75-80 percent healthy and not ready for live reps. Whittingham is hoping to get him some on Wednesday, when Utah's final scrimmage is scheduled.

Mack, meanwhile, was pulled out of Saturday's scrimmage early because his left Achilles tightened. Whittingham, who said it's an ongoing concern and sort of like a problem linebacker Kyle Brady had last season, is confident some time off will do it good. The Utes won't practice today and Mack's involvement will be limited on Monday and Tuesday.

Quarterback Brian Johnson said the team needs to get better when camp resumes next week.

"The bottom line is however you played today — some people played great, some people didn't play great — they've got to improve on what they did," Johnson continued. "It's never good enough."

In the latest scrimmage, for example, Utah's offense racked up too many administrative penalties. An abundance of flags were thrown in critical situations.

"Things went pretty smooth," said wide receiver Brent Casteel.

"The offense has got a lot to work on, too many penalties. We'll get it corrected."

A 5-yard scoring strike from Johnson to Bradon Godfrey and a 2- yard touchdown run by Ray Stowers in a red-zone situation were the only trips the offense made into the end zone on Saturday. The other scores — in windy conditions at the stadium — came on five field goals by Ben Vroman and two by Louie Sakoda.

"Obviously there were some positives. Guys got a lot better and did some different things," Johnson said, "It was a good day. We've still got room to improve, make progress and make strides."

Freshman running back Sausan Shakerin led all rushers with 39 yards on seven carries. John Peel, Freddie Brown and Jereme Brooks topped the receivers with four catches apiece. Johnson, Corbin Louks and Chad Manis teamed to complete 19-of-25 passes for 169 yards.

The success, however, paled in comparison to another solid scrimmage by the defense.

Linebacker Nai Fotu highlighted the effort by returning a fumble 13 yards for a touchdown. Other notable contributions included two sacks by defensive end Paul Kruger and a pass breakup by Brandon Burton.

Special teams were also a point of emphasis in the scrimmage. Reggie Topps and Zac Eldridge responded by blocking punts. Return specialists were also auditioned. The cast included newcomer David Reed and Casteel, who is back after missing last season with a knee injury.

"We can afford to use anybody, anywhere that can help us win," Whittingham said.

Both receivers welcome the opportunity and hope to be included.

More special teams work is planned for the final scrimmage.

"It was a good work day," Whittingham said while leaving the field.

One area of concern, he pointed out, is the offense. Whittingham said he isn't sure if the defense is that good or if the offense just needs to do better.

"More production on offense is a must," he added.


E-mail: facer@desnews.com