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April 23, 2006

Utes wrap-up camp

Two redshirt freshmen connected on the last play from scrimmage as the White team came from behind to upset the Red team 22-21 in Utah's annual Red-White game Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Sophomore QB Kevin Dunn found wide receiver Sean Smith running free in the middle of the field for a 20-yard touchdown pass. After the game Dunn and Smith walked us through that final game winning play.

"Sean Smith was running a post route," said Dunn. "I saw the two safeties sitting there. One safety started to get a little wide, I knew that Sean was going to break across the middle. I just threw it, he turned at the right time, we hooked up."

"The field was wide open in the middle," recalled Smith. "As I ran up the field, [Dunn] looked the safety away. So I cut right to the middle. Turned around, perfect throw, great blocking, it was like slow motion."

"That route is all timing," continued Dunn. "Throw it too late, you run into the backside safety. Throw it too early, there's a linebacker sitting right there. Just have to hit it right there in that window. Sean looked at the right time, I threw it at the right time. Good play all around."

Smith showed more then just his ability on the play. He also showed off his fun loving personality in his celebration, dunking the ball over the goal post and then telling UteZone.com about it. "I caught it, and I thought to myself, 'what would be the greatest celebration?' I looked up, and it was like God just said this to me. You know, the goal post was right there, grab that thing, and just try to dunk it as hard as I could. Greatest feeling of my life."

Offensive Player of the Game: Marquis Wilson

Wilson had a few drops today, including one on a sure touchdown. He knows he needs to do better. "I'm going to come out better next time, learn from my mistakes. I was ready to go to the house. The safety, I was ready to take him. I was going to juke him inside, I had it all planned out in my head. I just have to take it step by step. Coach says look at the ball, look it in, that's what I've got to do." Despite the drops, Wilson continued his solid spring performance with 3 receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown. However, he doesn't feel he deserved the award. "I would feel better if I thought I deserved it. I'm with a good corps of receivers." Who would he give it to? "That's a tough one. I could say it could be a split. I think if I would have caught some of those passes it would have been the quarterbacks for sure. Tommy Grady and Brett Ratliff, I'd give it to them, they're great quarterbacks."


Defensive Player of the Game: Paul Soliai
With starters Soli Lefiti sitting out all spring due to shoulder surgery and Kelly Talavou held out for precautionary reasons, that left room for Paul Soliai to step up his play, and he did, solidifying his spot as a starter. Soliai was the defensive player of the game, making several huge plays. His best play came early on when he knifed through the line and slammed running back George Molifua to the ground for a 3-yard loss. "I feel great," said Soliai. "I seem to have improved in my skills and my technique, but I know I need more work. Stay in my gaps."

Play of the Game: Believe it or not, it wasn't the winning touchdown pass. The play of the spring game, perhaps the play of spring camp, came from Tommy Grady. Grady, avoiding the rush, bought time with his feet, rolled to his right, and hit a wide-open Derrek Richards for an 18-yard touchdown. The play showed not only Grady's mobility and arm strength, but also the improvement in the line and the receivers.

The spring game was a nice conclusion to five weeks of intense practice. The players and staff worked extremely hard this spring to get as much accomplished as possible. While five weeks and fifteen practices isn't enough to work out all the kinks, there were plenty of questions going in that were answered throughout the spring and also today.


Who will be the starting quarterback?

This question has not nor will be answered now. At the moment, Brett Ratliff is at the top, but joined by Brian Johnson. Johnson won the starting job last fall, and played well in his first season as a starter, finishing 4th nationally in total offense, even though he missed the last two games after tearing his ACL. Ratliff came in, won the last two games, and has picked up where he left off. Ratliff performed well this spring, showing his leadership skills along with a good arm and a better understanding of the offense then he had at any point last season. Ratliff struggled slightly in the spring game, but overcame a slow start to end up completing 5 passes for 37 yards and a touchdown to Marquis Wilson. "I don't think we did as well as we could have or should have," Ratliff said, "we just have to have better play from everybody. We were able to go down, drive down and put some points on the board." Overall however, Ratliff feels the offense has come together nicely this spring. "We've come a long way. We've improved a lot. That's what spring ball is all about. We just need to keep getting better until fall comes along."

Johnson, while being extremely limited in his participation, threw the ball well this spring. If he can be near 100% by the fall, the battle for the top spot should be fierce. Right now, Johnson places his knee around 70%, but hopes to be 85-90% this summer, and 95-100% by the fall. Asked about what he has seen from the offense, Johnson pointed out the receivers and the line. "We've done a good job. We've developed a lot of depth at the receiver position, and we've gotten some recruits in at the line, getting a strong two deep there. I think we'll be set on offense."

While Ratliff and Johnson appear to be the top two heading into fall, don't count out Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady. Grady brings the strongest arm of the group to the table, as well as surprising mobility from a 6-foot-7, 230-pound quarterback.

Who will step up and replace Quinton Ganther?

Senior running back Daryl Poston has been impressive this spring, with his speed and quickness. He has also shown surprising toughness and ability to be an all around back. Poston saw limited action in the game, with 3 carries for 17 yards. However, with his performance over the five weeks of spring ball, he has earned the top spot.

Seeing time along with Poston will be junior Mike Liti and sophomore Darrell Mack. Liti played this spring with a chip on his shoulder, and he will be the top back in short yardage situations. He has shown good vision and power throughout the spring, and showed it today on a hard fought 15 yard run. His performance this spring earned him playing time in the fall. Mack is the leading returning rusher among the running backs, but has been slowed by a nagging hamstring injury. When healthy, he has shown the ability to be an every down back, able to run with power between the tackles as well as the speed to bounce it outside. Due to his hamstring, Mack saw very little action this spring, including only one carry in the spring game. However, he will be in the mix when fall camp rolls around, and figures to see some carries in 2006.

With the combination of Poston, Liti, and Mack, Utah appears to be just fine at running back.

Will Colorado State happen again?

This question refers directly to the offensive line's inconsistent play last season. There were times when the line was dominant (Utah State, BYU, Georgia Tech) and times when the line was dominated (last 3 plays of CSU, second half of New Mexico, North Carolina). Utah returns four linemen with starting experience, but must replace All-MWC center Jesse Boone. Junior Kyle Gunther has played extremely well at center this spring despite moving over from guard, and has the starting spot secured. The line as a unit might be better now then they were at the beginning of 2005. They certainly seem to have a more aggressive, physical mentality, and a determination to never have the blame for a loss on their shoulders. Also, the offensive staff has made some changes for goal line and short yardage situations, starting with a three back/two tight end power formation that has been successful this spring. In the spring game, the offensive line played well, with the units combining to allow only one sack in 39 pass attempts. Utah should be solid among the starters, should have decent depth behind them.

Linebacker

If there is an area that has concerned every Ute fan, it is the linebackers. They struggled at times last season, especially early in the season. They lost leading tackler and playmaker Spencer Toone. JC transfer Chet Blasucci, who was supposed to help shore up the MAC position, has been moved to defensive tackle. From the outside looking in, Utah looks to need help. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, though.

Improvement in the play of the defensive line will help the linebackers immensely, as some of their problems were due to the fact that Burnett was struggling keeping plays contained. Also, returning starters Kyle Brady and Joe Jiannoni were learning their positions as they were playing. Losing Malakai Mokofisi for disciplinary reasons hurt depth. Loma Olevao has made strides this spring and will be in the mix for either ROVER or MAC. J.J. Williams has also made big strides since being moved from safety. "Linebacker, I think, is the hardest spot on the field," said Williams. "You have to know everything. Especially running both MAC and ROVER, you have to know your way around." Add all these positives to the historical fact that Utah under Kyle Whittingham has had successful defenses without true standout linebackers, and there is reason to be optimistic.

Where will Weddle play?

One of the more interesting questions concerns the secondary. Not who will play, but where. All of that centers around senior DB Eric Weddle and the corners. Weddle did not play much this spring due to a hamstring injury, but he will be full speed in the fall, and will play somewhere. Initially, he was going to play cornerback. It had been decided, nearly set in stone. However, with the strong play of Shaun Harper, Brice McCain, Eric Shyne and Mombroso Washington, doubt has started to creep in. It now seems that Weddle is as likely to move back to safety as staying at corner. Regardless of where Weddle lines up, Utah will be strong in the secondary.


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