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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes Geoff Norwood runs back a kickoff during practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.
(Norwood)'s made the most progress from day one to where we are now. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Geoff Norwood may be the best player on the University of Utah football team you've never heard of. According to his coaches, he's probably the most improved player since the start of fall camp three weeks ago.

Norwood is a 5-foot-8, 180-pound walk-on who plays wide receiver and has already worked his way to the top of the punt returner depth chart.

"Geoff is having a heck of a camp," said receivers coach Aaron Roderick, who recruited him out of Fullerton College. "He's right in the mix. He was a qualifier out of high school, played one year at Fullerton, but didn't want to wait so he paid his own way. He's going to be a player here."

Norwood has worked his way into the rotation at receiver and is fighting for the starting punt returner job with Charles Henderson, who was injured early in his freshman season.

But it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for Norwood since coming to Utah from Fullerton last year.

As a walk-on, he had to pay his own way through school last fall and then was sidelined with a nasty injury, a broken left wrist that has taken more than nine months to fully heal. He is barely getting over the break and still wears a wrap around thewrist when he plays.

Then earlier this month, he suffered a tragedy in his family when one of his close cousins was shot to death in southern California. He missed a day of practice and is still trying to get over the shock.

"It still hurts," he said. "All I can say is, he got shot in the back of the head. I didn't want to practice because my mind wasn't on football. I didn't know what to do. It was hard, but all the coaches and players talked to me. I just told myself 'fight through it' and 'it's going to be better,' but sometimes I still think about it."

Norwood was an all-around athlete at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles and loves baseball as much as any sport, with an ability to play any position on the field. He also played basketball in high school.

But football is where he's making his mark and the Utes are glad to have him.

"He's kind of a Jereme Brooks-type player — maybe a little taller, but the same style of play," said U. coach Kyle Whittingham. "He has the same quickness, he's got great hands and is one of the most improved guys in camp. He's made the most progress from day one to where we are now."

As a punt returner, he would play one of the most important positions on the field. A good punt returner can give a team great field position, while any mistake in fielding punts can make the difference in a game.

"The first thing we look for is how consistent they are catching the ball," says Ute coach Morgan Scalley, who oversees the returners. "He fields the ball well, he's comfortable and he's not jittery when he's catching the ball. He's fearless and afterwards he has some shake and is going to make guys miss."

Scalley says the Utes "probably have more depth at punt returner than we've had in a long time" with Michael Walker and James Poole challenging Norwood and Henderson.

Norwood says he used to be 20 pounds heavier in high school when he mostly played running back. He said once he got to junior college, the coaches asked him if he could catch.

"I said 'yeah' and they put me back at punt returner. I took one back to the house and they said, 'Oh yeah,' and I've been playing punt returner ever since."

Now he's hoping to get his shot at returning punts in the Pac-12 and eventually not have to pay his own way to school.

"I just keep working hard and hopefully one day I'll get that scholarship."

Email: sor@desnews.com