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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah wide receiver Demari Simpkins makes a catch ahead of defensive back Nygel King during practice at the Eccles Football Complex in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 10, 2018.
I always see myself as a leader. As soon as I stepped foot on campus my freshman year, I saw myself as a leader. That’s who I am. —Utah wide receiver Demari Simpkins

SALT LAKE CITY — About a month ago, Siaosi Mariner opened an envelope from his mother and found something he’s wanted all his life.

“I’ve been nagging her about it for a while,” he said of the birth certificate that changed his name from his biological father’s to his mother’s maiden name. “My mom’s last name is Mariner, and she’s been a single mom my whole life. It’s sad I had to wait 21 years, but I wanted to change it as a dedicate to her. … She’s been my mom and my dad.”

The junior wide receiver said having his mother’s name on his back will provide even more motivation than he has each day.

“It’s a boost to have my mom’s name on my back and to know why I do it, who I do it for everyday, on my back,” said Mariner, who leads the preseason bid to fill the void left by last year’s top receivers — Raelon Singleton, who left the U. for family reasons with one year of eligibility, and Darren Carrington II, who hopes to earn a spot on an NFL roster. “My mom has two jobs, and she works so hard taking care of four children. She does an amazing job at it.”

Mariner said when his motivation flags, he only has to think of her.

“She’s a grinder,” he said. “She gets it. I strive to be like her in many ways. When I see her get up, I got to get up too. If there is a day out here where I don’t feel like doing it, I know she does it on a consistent basis. So I go out there and try to do the same thing as her.”

While Mariner has the extra motivation of playing each game to honor the sacrifices made by his mom, all of Utah’s receivers are hoping to become one of the strengths of the teams.

Utah’s offense ranked seven in passing and ninth in scoring in 2017. With only one senior — Jameson Field — and losing last year’s two most productive receivers, it may seem unlikely the unit could make strides to be better. But that’s exactly what they’re doing in spring football.

“I see improvement,” said receivers coach Guy Holliday. “I’m pleased right now. …We have improved every day, but we’ve got to keep the upward trend. So far, it’s been good; I’m excited.”

Holliday said Mariner has been a standout for the group through three weeks of spring practices.

“When I first got here, I don’t think he had great self confidence,” Holliday said. “Each year, it has really built to where I think he’s ready to go. I’m looking for a breakout year from him so far. We’ll see what summer brings.”

Holliday said Mariner, who had 20 catches last season for 393 yards and one touchdown, is just one of the group’s leaders.

Junior Demari Simpkins and sophomore Samson Nacua each had 29 catches for 354 and 294 yards, respectively.

“Demari, he’s been a leader since his freshman year,” Holliday said, echoing what Simpkins told reporters earlier in practice.

“I always see myself as a leader,” Simpkins said. “As soon as I stepped foot on campus my freshman year, I saw myself as a leader. That’s who I am.”

Another player pointed out as a leader is the group’s only senior, Field, who had just two catches last season, but has been impressive in spring ball.

Redshirt freshman Bronson Boyd, who originally signed with Texas Tech out of high school, has impressed with his speed and athleticism.

The group will be bolstered by the addition of returned missionary Britain Covey, who will enter his sophomore season with high expectations after a spectacular freshman season, and four-star recruit Solomon Enis (Arizona), who had more than 1,000 yards receiving as a junior and 820 as a senior.

Simpkins said that while the competition is fierce, the friendship between the young men binds them together. “We love each other,” Simpkins said. “We try to help each other every day on the field, in the film room, and it’s just all love in the room — no individuals. We’re all competing, but at the same time, we help each other. We’ve all got to be as good as each other.”

He and several other receivers said they are playing better as a unit this spring than they did last year at this time.

“Last year we were just learning the offense,” Simpkins said. “This year, we’re getting the hang of it.” Wilson said the receivers don’t see the calls for them to improve as added pressure.

“It’s like an opportunity,” he said. “You go out there and do your thing. Every single challenge is an opportunity to show someone what you’ve got.”

Boyd said the energy in the group is uplifting because there are so many leaders.

“There’s just more determination, more focus,” Boyd said. “The leadership is great. They’re on our butts about off the field, in the classroom, and that’s the first step. Take care of that, and then on the field will take care of itself.”

Mariner said the energy has shifted significantly this spring.

“A lot of guys want to prove themselves,” he said. “A lot of guys are hungry. … We’re a bunch of hungry guys willing to do what it takes to show what we can do.”

Holliday said they have set measureable goals, but at the top of the list is fewer drops.

“The goal is to be more mentally tough,” he said, “never be a weak focal point of the team. They’ve really taken strides, and hopefully they can become the focal point, just a contributing part.”

The biggest difference, their coach said, is their mental toughness and ability.

“Practices are much better, and that comes with knowledge,” he said. “Knowledge is confidence. The more confident, the easier it is to play the game. I’m very excited about where we are.”