It took a month and a half longer than expected, but Aiona (I-own-a) Key is finally a member of the Utah football team.
Key was cleared to play on Friday, just in time to suit up in his No. 9 jersey for Saturday night's game against Utah State in Logan, where he stood on the sidelines for three hours.
"I knew I wasn't going to play," he said. "I was ecstatic just to dress up and get on the field.
Every day since the start of fall camp, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham has fielded questions about the missing junior college transfer, who began his career at Boise State before playing at Mount San Antonio College, where he caught 80 passes for 1,112 yards and 17 touchdowns.
After not playing Saturday, Key participated in his first practice with the Utes Monday afternoon. He was clearly out of shape, finishing last in the wind sprints, and acknowledged the fact afterward, saying, "I thought I was more in shape, but the altitude played a big role,"
Whittingham was quick to say Key was out of shape but added "he's very talented, and we'll try to integrate him into the system."
"It was very frustrating to miss all the summer practices," Key said. "It hurts a lot, but I'll catch up. I'll run every day until it gets
better. I can't be the most out-of-shape guy on the team and be a skill player ... I've definitely got to step it up."
So what was the big delay in Key joining the team? According to Key, it was a complicated procedure of transcripts being processed among the three schools.
Whittingham said Key could play at receiver on a limited basis this week, but his best chance to play immediately could be at punt returner, where the Utes have struggled, particularly in Saturday's game, which Whittingham called a "fiasco" when three balls were dropped or bobbled.
Key was one of six players trying out for the punt return position in addition to John Peel, who had the job the past two games after taking over for Jereme Brooks, who lost his job after the first game.
Besides Key, the others fielding punts for an extra 15 minutes before and after practice this week are David Reed, Terrell Cole, Justin Jones, Brice McCain and Collin Robinson.
"We chart everything," said Whittingham. He said there are several factors involved, but obviously the main requirement for a punt returner is not dropping the football.
PRACTICE REPORT: Whittingham was pleased with Tuesday's practice.
He said the Utes showed a good attitude.
"Tuesday is a heavy work day our heaviest work day of the week," Whittingham explained. "They handled it well."
The search for someone to consistently field punt returns continued. Whittingham said a group of guys were working hard and a decision willl be made by Thursday.
CONFERENCE CALL: Like most of his colleagues during the Mountain West's weekly teleconference on Tuesday, Whittingham was asked about the league's 4-0 success against the Pac-10 last Saturday.
"You can't talk yourself into respectability. You have to play yourself into it," Whittingham said of the MWC's need to play well against BCS teams. "I think that's exactly what we did on Saturday."
At the very least, he added, the MWC took a step in the right direction.
DOWNTOWN FREDDIE BROWN: It took Utah receiver Freddie Brown 31 games to catch his first touchdown pass for the Utes. Now, the senior has scored in two consecutive games.
"Why it's taken to this point and time for his production level to go up ... that's a good question," Whittingham said. "But apparently the light switch has gone on for Freddie and we're hoping to get solid play from him week in and week out."
Brown is Utah's third-leading receiver after three games this season. He has 11 catches for 156 yards, including touchdown receptions against UNLV (32 yards) and Utah State (10 yards).
In his first three seasons with the Utes, Brown made 39 catches for 458 yards.
MARTINEZ OUT, AGAIN: LInebacker Matt Martinez, a major special teams contributor, will be sidelined for the rest of the season after tearing a biceps muscle in the win over Utah State. He'll have surgery soon. Martinez, a sophomore, suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year's opener at Oregon State and is expected to be awarded another year of eligibility.EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham confirmed that highly touted running back Sausan Shakerin of Alta High School is in "redshirt mode" this season and will stay there "barring disaster" ... Weber State still has tickets available for the Sept. 27 game against the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium ... Air Force is the only MWC team that Utah has an overall losing record against. The Utes are 10-14 vs. the Falcons.
Contributing: Dirk Facer