Don Ryan, AP
UCLA head football coach Rick Neuheisel signals to players before the first half of their NCAA Pac-12 Championship college football game against Oregon in Eugene, Ore., on Friday, Dec. 2, 2011.
Given what I’ve seen today, they’ve got a real good chance of getting back to postseason. —Former college football coach Rick Neuheisel, on the Utah football team

SALT LAKE CITY — Rick Neuheisel compared Utah’s adjustment to Pac-12 play to the NCAA’s “acclimatization” period.

“It’s a process,” said the former head coach at Colorado (1995-98), Washington (1999-2002) and UCLA (2008-11), who is now an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks.

Neuheisel and studio host Mike Yam visited the Utes’ practice Wednesday as part of their conference-wide preview tour.

“Given what I’ve seen today, they’ve got a real good chance of getting back to postseason,” Neuheisel said.

The increased exposure of being in the Pac-12 and the recruiting advantages associated with it, he explained, will upgrade the level of play and allow Utah to turn its 7-11 conference record around. Neuheisel said head coach Kyle Whittingham told him that the Utes are getting into 75 percent more homes on the recruiting trail since joining the Pac-12.

Hopefully, Neuheisel continued, it’ll allow Whittingham and Utah to get back to a record like the 21-3 conference mark the program had over its final three seasons in the Mountain West.

The hiring of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, Neuheisel said, was a really good move for everyone involved.

“I’m excited for Dennis and I’m excited for Utah football. I think he’s got a wealth of knowledge,” Neuheisel explained. “He’s been successful everywhere he’s been and sometimes taking a lot of that head coaching administrative stuff off your plate kind of gives you a revitalization almost — more energy to go out and do what you really love doing.

“Speaking from experience, that stuff can get to be a little bit of a headache and this becomes your sanctuary,” he continued. “For him to put all his energy into this I think will benefit their offense. It certainly will benefit Brian Johnson as he develops into the fine coordinator that he will be.”

PUTTING ON THE PADS: The Utes donned shoulder pads for the first time in camp. Whittingham liked the physicality it added after two sessions in helmets and shorts.

“I thought they handled it well,” he said.

Aside from one bad session with the first offense, Whittingham said that the execution was good and it was a positive day overall.

KICKING COMPETITION: After one day of kicking as a unit — everything else has been individual work — Whittingham said that Andy Phillips, Jamie Sutcliffe and Jon Halliday were good candidates for the placekicking job. They opened camp on the depth chart.

“They’re striking the ball well. So I think we’ve got the right guys in the competition,” Whittingham said. “We’ve just got to find out who is going to win that competition.”

Whittingham is hopeful things will start to sort out in the next week or two.

MORE McCORMICK: For the third consecutive day, freshman running back Troy McCormick drew praise from Whittingham.

“He’s a guy that will figure in this year, at least that’s what we see so far,” said Whittingham, who later added that the coaches will certainly take a hard look at having the 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman from Mayde Creek High School in Texas return kickoffs this season.

The Utes are seeking a replacement for 2012 All-American return specialist Reggie Dunn.

JUST IN CASE: Sophomore linebacker Reshawn Hooker is taking reps at safety. With junior college transfer Tevin Carter’s academic situation still unclear, Whittingham said that the Utes need to have a “Plan B” in place and they’ll look at Hooker — who has great speed and athleticism — there for the next week or two.

Whittingham said it’ll be two to three weeks minimum before Carter will likely be able to join the Utes.

EXTRA POINTS: Wednesday’s practice ended with a relay race featuring players from California, Texas, Utah and a team comprised of guys from “other” places. California, featuring speedy receivers Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott, prevailed. … Whittingham said quarterback Travis Wilson was hot and cold Wednesday, adding that he did some good things but was not as sharp as he needed to be in order for Utah to compete for a Pac-12 championship. However, Whittingham said Wilson has made great strides from last season and spring ball. … Whittingham praised freshman quarterback Conner Manning for being mature beyond his years and playing like a third- or fourth-year Division 1 veteran. “That’s how quickly he goes through his reads,” Whittingham said.



Day 3: The Utes added shoulder pads to their practice attire as they reached the midway point of the NCAA-mandated five-day “acclimatization” period. The fourth session is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Standouts: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted the play of wide receiver Delshawn McClellon, running back Troy McCormick and the defensive line.

Injuries: Defensive back Joseph Smith tweaked his hamstring near the end of practice. Offensive lineman Carlos Lozano and wide receiver Andre Lewis were in “The Pit” during practice. Quarterback Micah Thomas (hamstring) returned to practice.

Overheard: “It was good to get the pads on and get some physicality to the practice.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham