Utah wrapped up their first full week of fall camp with a spirited practice Saturday morning that saw both sides of the ball come to life. After dominating the headlines for most of the week, the offense took a back seat to a defense that rallied together and for the first time flashed the fire and attitude that Ute defenses have been known for.
After a first scrimmage that can best be described as rough, Utah's defense buckled down and pulled together, winning the last two practices of the week. Utah's secondary has started to pick things up, and thinking less out on the field.
"When they start thinking too much, that's when they look back at the quarterback and get into trouble," Utah cornerback Brandon Burton said. Burton also credits the change on defense to a talk the unit had as well as increased knowledge of the system. "Yesterday we had a talk, how we needed to get out there and play better. Everybody's doing well now, flying around, and we're starting to look like a real defense. When we first came, everyone was kind of everywhere. Now you see everyone starting to make their right reads, and the defense is coming together."
One concern is leadership on defense, though the first week saw several players emerge as candidates. Several of the defensive linemen, including tackles Dave Kruger and Sealver Siliga have become more vocal in their roles, but the new linebackers have really stepped up their roles as leaders. "The whole linebacking corps, we call them 'the Congo', they're down there telling people where to go, getting people in-line," Burton said. "Justin Taplin-Ross is stepping up as well." Burton would not single himself out as a team leader, but did admit to being more vocal as well, and helping get everyone where they need to be.
Utah's offense has been the highlight of camp up to this point, and has yet to turn the ball over in full team work. The offense has many experienced players coming back, especially on the offensive line and in the backfield, and that experience shows. Quarterback Jordan Wynn has improved a great deal since he arrived as a skinny freshman, and his accuracy and footwork are noticeably better. Utah's first team offensive line is opening holes and seemingly every back on the roster is taking advantage. Tauni Vakapuna had a solid week running the ball, including stepping through several tacklers in the scrimmage before racing down the right sideline on a 92-yard touchdown run.
Utah's young receivers are improving as well. The tight end position has five athletes that will potentially see playing time, including the hybrid fullback-tight end Shawn Asiata. The younger brother of running back Matt Asiata, Shawn is a 250-pounder who has soft hands and loves contact. Dallin Rogers, two months off his mission, has been impressive at tight end through the first part of camp, and will be in the mix. Receiver is the position with the most questions, though Jereme Brooks and Luke Matthews have had strong camps and look ready to lead the group. Shaky Smithson and newcomer Reggie Dunn round out the top four receivers over the first week. Overall, the offense has been extremely impressive to this point, causing one observer to state, "We haven't had an offense like this since 2004".
"We've been getting after it, both sides of the ball," Wynn said. "We're real solid. The offense is coming in fairly well, and a lot of guys are experienced in the offense, so we're looking good."
Utah still has a long way to go before they are ready for the season opener, but right now the team is playing well. Most of the schemes are in place, the key from this point on is for both sides of the ball to prove they know the system and can consistently execute. Offensively, the team needs to start the next scrimmage better than the first, and be consistent throughout. The defense needs to be cleaned up overall, as there have been too many missed tackles and the coverage needs to be tightened up. Still, Utah might be further along at this point than any other year under head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Though a few players have really stood out on the defensive side of the ball, including defensive end Christian Cox and defensive tackle Neli A'asa, the defensive star of the first week has been Burton. Burton emerged as Utah's top corner a year ago and has continued to improve and impress over the offseason. Burton is a tireless worker and a film junkie who loves the challenge of playing corner in Utah's aggressive man-coverage defense.
The junior corner is an incredible talent, and is starting to excel in the role handed down to him at the end of last season; covering the opposition's best receiver. "I did it last year, and that's what they have me doing now, and I'm liking it," Burton said of moving around and shadowing the top target. This role also means Burton will have to slide inside and cover slot receivers at times, something he is not completely accustomed to. Though it may sound like a simple move, there is a different technique and skill-set required to cover the slot well, and Burton is improving in those areas as well. "The field opens up a lot more when you play on the inside, you have a lot more routes you can give up," Burton said. "That's when I really rely on my technique and everything to help me out. It's a lot different from playing outside."
By far, the standout on offense since camp started has been JC transfer Reggie Dunn. Dunn has stood out since the first practice with his combination of speed, quickness, and ball skills. Currently the backup to Brooks at the H-receiver spot, Dunn has the look of a player who can make an immediate impact. Dunn's greatest asset might be his ability after the catch, as he uses his speed and quickness to make defenders miss in the open field. Dunn has been getting looks at punt and kick return as well.
"I'm just trying to learn on the go, learn at a fast pace," Dunn said. "I'm one of the older receivers, but young at the division one level, so I've got to learn on the run, learn from guys like Jereme Brooks, he's teaching me a lot." Dunn landed at Utah as a sophomore due to some unique circumstances. Dunn signed with Oregon State out of high school, but had to attend a junior college where he grey-shirted the first year, played a year at Compton Community College, then took the next year off to focus on school. Dunn could not finish his course work in the spring, and Oregon State chose to go in another direction. Dunn contacted Utah, who agreed to take him on in the fall. "Everything happens for a reason, God has a plan for everybody, and I think this is the right situation for me," Dunn said. "I like it a lot."
Earning the Feather
Several players from the new recruiting class are now sporting the drum and feather logo on their helmets after the first week. Many have speculated as to how the players earn their feathers, and Whittingham was kind enough to give us the full story.
"They do something in practice to stand out," Whittingham said. "Whether they win a drill such as the circle drill, make a nice play in a scrimmage, or in a competitive situation, they do something to stand out. It's a coaches' decision."