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Deseret News
Utah assistant coach Jay Hill and Westlee Tonga during University of Utah football practice on April 16 in Salt Lake City.

OGDEN — Several former Utah coaches and players will be wearing purple Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Weber State staff facing the Utes in the season-opener includes head coach Jay Hill, associate head coach Brent Myers, offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, defensive tackles coach Kite Afeaki, outside linebackers coach Grant Duff, running backs coach Quinton Ganther, safeties coach Joe Dale and tight ends coach Al Pupunu.

The reunion, though, is a business trip.

“It doesn’t matter what color jersey they’re wearing or who it is and all that stuff. Once the ball is kicked off you’re just fighting and clawing and digging trying to make a play,” Hill said. “Hopefully our players take that approach, that they don’t go down there and see that jersey and get starry-eyed or something like that.”

Hill added that he doesn’t envision that happening.

“Not to this program anymore,” he said.

Hill points to showings in competitive losses at Oregon State three years ago and at California and James Madison last season as proof.

Weber State has evolved into something special in the Football Championship Subdivision. It won a share of the Big Sky Conference title last season and went on to win two games in the FCS playoffs for the first time, finishing with a team-record 11-3.

“Jay’s done a great job. It doesn’t surprise me a bit,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s smart, he’s disciplined, he’s well-organized. He’s got a great grasp of all three phases — offense, defense, special teams.”

Whittingham noted that Hill worked in each aspect during his coaching tenure at Utah and has great rapport with his players.

“We think we have a decent idea what to expect,” Whittingham said. “But you never know for sure.”

Defensively, Whittiingham explained that the Wildcats run a scheme that is very similar to what the Utes run. Specifically, a pretty heavy dose of man coverage. This year’s Weber State defense is headlined by senior linebackers LeGrand Toia and Landon Stice, who are preseason All-Americans.

The big unknowns come on offense. The Wildcats lost quarterback Stefan Cantwell to graduation and are breaking in a newcomer. Redshirt freshman Kaden Jenks is the scheduled starter.

" Jay’s done a great job. It doesn’t surprise me a bit. He’s smart, he’s disciplined, he’s well-organized. He’s got a great grasp of all three phases — offense, defense, special teams. "
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

“It’s not an easy place to break in a guy taking his first snap of college football. You’re in Rice-Eccles Stadium, you know,” said Schramm, who is in his first season at Weber State. “But it is what it is and we’ve got to prepare for that.”

Schramm, who worked at Utah from 2005-11, went on to face the Utes twice during a stint as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator. As such, Schramm has a pretty good idea what to expect, noting the similarities with the defenses at Utah and Weber State..

“From what I see, they haven’t changed a whole heck of a lot. Schematically they’re still going to put one more in the box than we can block and they’re still going to be tough,” he said. “They’re going to be physical and they won’t miss tackles. They’re going to be a typical Kyle Whittingham-style defensive football team. They’re going to press us and play man-free and make us beat them.”

Trying to do so with an inexperienced quarterback adds to the degree of difficulty. Schramm, though, noted that the Wildcats have great kids and character guys that work hard and believe in toughness.

“We’ll go down there. We’ll do the best we can. We’ll get after it,” he added. “We’ve got some decisions we got to make from a personnel standpoint offensively. They had a great year last season and we lost some key guys. It’s not an easy place to break in a quarterback.”

Hill agreed.

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“Especially against that defense and how good those defensive coaches are and what a great job they do,” he explained. “So we’ve got our work cut out for us, no doubt.”

Weber State, though, isn’t going into the game empty-handed. The Wildcats are ranked No. 8 in the FCS preseason poll. Besides Stice and Toia on defense, they have three other preseason All-Americans on their roster — senior offensive lineman Iosua Opeta, sophomore wide receiver/kick returner Rashid Shaheed and sophomore kicker Trey Tuttle.