One day it was a golf competition between three players who had hardly ever played golf before. Another day coaches sat on each other's shoulders and tried to block placekicks. One day, loudspeakers blasted out the 1960s hit "Louie, Louie," while kicker Louie Sakoda attempted to make a field goal amid distractions from his teammates and coaches. One time the big, 300-pound linemen tried to field punts. Another time an assistant coach raced a freshman through a convoy of players to determine whether the coaches or players ran windsprints at the end of practice.

Welcome to Utah football 2008.

No, the Utes fall football camp hasn't turned into one big fun-o-rama. But it's definitely not as serious as it used to be, either.

The Utes are taking themselves a little less seriously, while trying to build some camaraderie and team unity at the same time. Their hope is that better team chemistry, added to a bunch of talented individuals, will result in a special season.

Whether they want to admit it or not, the Utes haven't always been the best at harboring team chemistry. One year there was a rift between the offense and the defense that caused division on the team. Some past players have confided to the media about communication problems between coaches and players or among players. Sure, those things happen on most teams, but the Utes are trying to minimize conflicts and build better team camaraderie this year.

"It's a huge point of emphasis that cannot be overstated or addressed enough, because it's such a vital part of our success," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "Chemistry and leadership are those intangibles that often make the difference."

The players have noticed a difference this year.

"It seems like when I first came here (in 2005) with a new staff, there was a very rigid coaching style," said Sakoda. "Now the coaches are realizing things they can do to make it a little more fun. I don't know if 'relaxed' is the word because we still practice at a high tempo. But we're placing a huge emphasis on team unity and leadership this year."

Sakoda acknowledged that in the past he hasn't even known some of the other players on the team, but that has changed this year.

"This year there's a brotherhood atmosphere, and that really reflects how players play on the field," he said.

Tight end Colt Sampson is the oldest player on the team and has been around as long as anyone in the Ute program as a fifth-year senior.

"Definitely the coaches have done a good job of keeping a positive atmosphere," he said. "It nice to have those little things to help your teammates come together and get to know your teammates a little better. We put in our work, and then we have a little relaxing time. We keep a good balance."

Another player who has been around for five years and likes the new approach is quarterback Brian Johnson.

"It can get to be a grind out here, and guys can start to be ornery and sick of each other," Johnson said. "We just try to keep it fun and keep this team going because we have a chance to be really good. We have tough practices, and then it's nice to end it on a fun note."

Whittingham hasn't assigned anyone to be the "fun coordinator" and acknowledged he comes up with most of the ideas.

"I lie in bed at night trying to think of ways to create some diversions," he said. "The monotonies of two-a-days can really get to you. It's always nice to have a diversion here and there, as long as it doesn't take away from your focus."

In the golf competition, Sakoda and Johnson competed along with defensive tackle Koa Misi to see which group — the offense, defense or special teams — didn't have to do "gassers" that day. Wearing full gear, each had to hit an 8-iron toward a hoop at the other end of the field.

Sakoda, who said he's never played golf before in his life, was the closest. "My short game stinks," complained Johnson. They were both grinning when they talked about it.

Who knows what Whittingham and his staff will come up with this week to make their players smile. Whatever the Utes can do to develop good team chemistry could make this quite a fun year in Uteville in more ways than one.


E-mail: [email protected]