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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah wide receiver Britain Covey sits on the turf after a short gain Saturday night in Salt Lake City. Covey was on the receiving end of a number of big hits during Washington's 21-7 victory over the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

SALT LAKE CITY — The first big hit was a gang tackle on a quick out. Soon after came a similar scene on a punt return. Near the end of the first quarter, Britain Covey was yanked from behind like a cartoon character, legs spinning even as he was held in place. Another play ended violently as he spun for a catch, only to be slammed by a streetcar hit that left him woozy.

Clearly it was open season on small game. An accelerating tackle from behind caused Covey to fumble. One tackler flew into him as he lay huddled on the turf. He was door-slammed on another punt return and hammered twice on a short passing route.

With 1:21 remaining, he was jackknifed as he stretched skyward unprotected. He finished the play clutching his midsection.

Reminders of his violent weekend were there Monday after practice, though he showed no outward signs.

“Basically you name it,” Covey said, “I’m feeling it.”

Three games into the season, the Utes are using Covey with abandon. At 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, he’s deceptive but not imposing. That invites opponents to take their shots. Considering the Utes were down 21-7 inside the final two minutes, one might even ask whether he should have been in the game. He had taken a terrific pounding.

“I don’t know if (coaches) could tell. They asked me how I’m doing and of course I’m gonna say all right,” Covey said. “(Opponents) are going to really have to do something bigger than that to get me out of the game.”

Bigger than taking off his head?

“If it’s something like a head injury, that’s definitely another person’s call. We don’t even mess with head injuries in football. If it had been my head, I would have been really smart about it, in terms of not risking anything,” Covey said. “But you have so much adrenaline … and passion, you almost don’t feel it. You definitely feel it in the moment, but you can play through it and not be an idiot, not cause long-term damage.”

Which gets to the point: How much damage can Covey take? No one his size can absorb that kind of punishment for 12 games. If this continues, he’ll be gone before the season’s midway point.

Covey will never voluntarily remove himself, barring a head injury. He joked Monday about having “little man’s syndrome” and said, “When you play football and you’re my size, you’ve got to have that mentality, otherwise you’re gonna get picked on.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but the onus is on coaches to keep him healthy via thoughtful play calling and erring on the side of safety. They have done that with quarterback Tyler Huntley, who was constantly in harm’s way last season. But Saturday they had Covey on speed dial.

“We have to try and avoid those direct shots,” coach Kyle Whittingham said, “but they got after him pretty good. Washington is a physical team. We feel like we are a physical team too, but he did take some licks on Saturday night."

Asking the Utes to limit calls utilizing Covey — he had eight catches and 133 all-purpose yards against the Huskies — could be asking them to reduce firepower on an already-struggling offense. He is the team’s leading receiver, with more than twice as many catches as anyone else.

29 comments on this story

Covey is wonderfully elusive, with innate ability to make opponents miss. But he’s not invisible or indestructible. He appeared Monday after practice, calling his treatment by the Huskies “hilarious.”

Another game like that, the Utes will have to kill the laugh track.

Cartoonish though some of the tackles appeared, there is a serious side to the punishment Covey is taking. At some point he may have to reference iconic animation hero Popeye, whose signature line was: “That’s all I can stand; I can’t stand no more!”