Utah football: Offensive line getting attuned to new coach
Utah football notes • Jim Harding wants his linemen to pick up the pace, show consistency.
Published: April 17, 2014 10:24PM
Updated: April 15, 2014 09:01PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune New Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding during Utah football practice at Rice Eccles Stadium, Saturday, March 22, 2014.

Jim Harding may be one of the new coaches on the block up at Utah, but close to the end of spring, it would be hard to tell that he just stepped aboard a few months ago.

His offensive linemen know what he wants. They know what drills he runs, and if they don’t do them right, they anticipate his loud bark across the field. In film meetings, they’ve started using Harding’s terminology to acknowledge the mistakes they make.

“I think that kind of shows you’re starting to hit home,” he said.

A longtime assistant of offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, Harding has been tasked to whip the Utes’ offensive line into a high-tempo, high-efficiency group. It’s a process the coaching staff has acknowledged will take them into the fall. Coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday that he expects seven linemen to be competing for the five starting spots, and he’s not sure who will be where yet.

But Whittingham likes what he sees from the group, even though the starting line is still a bit uncertain in April.

“Players have really responded to [Harding],” he said. “They’ve developed a feel for his coaching style and what his expectations are, and they’re responding. It’s good to see.”

Last week, coaches made some dramatic switches in the depth chart, moving experienced returner Jeremiah Poutasi back to tackle, switching Hiva Lutui to the left side and moving up Salesi Utahafe, a freshman guard whom Harding describes as one of the more athletic prospects along the front.

While some coaches might worry about shaking up the order of things, Harding says for him, it’s a holistic picture. He teaches the scheme, not the individual roles. Ideally, all of his linemen will know the different jobs on the line by fall, when they’ve had time to better digest the playbook.

For the remainder of spring, one of the biggest concerns will be tempo. Film study of the weekend’s scrimmage revealed that the line had to play a bit faster, and Harding said the offense kept it up Tuesday for about “three quarters” of practice.

“It fell off towards the end, but the want-to is still there, and I think they see the benefit of doing it,” he said. “It’ll take time. As a coach, you get frustrated that the consistency isn’t there. At times you see it, and other times you wonder why it’s not there.”

Sanders-Williams is

‘a natural’ linebacker

One of the Utes’ answers to their thinning linebacking corps has been Marcus Sanders-Williams, a converted running back who has been testing out his chops on defense. And although he’s still learning, there have been promising signs.

On Tuesday, the 5-foot-10 sophomore snatched a Conner Manning pass and nearly took it to the house before getting caught five yards out.

“He’s really got a lot of natural feel for the position: instincts, pad level, just the way he moves and shuffles,” Whittingham said. “He looks like a natural, and we’re excited about that.”

The Utes are hurting at linebacker, with Jason Whittingham, Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul out for the rest of spring. Whittingham has limited Jared Norris and Nate Orchard in live work to keep injuries from piling up. But it’s temporary, he emphasized.

In returning healthy player news, Filipo Mokofisi returned to practice Tuesday. The freshman is listed as one of the team’s starting defensive tackles.

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon