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Utah football: Freshman safety Williams says he's ready if needed

Published August 21, 2014 11:45 pm

Utah notes • Williams impresses coaches during camp.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week that if disaster struck, and senior safeties Tevin Carter or Brian Blechen went down with injury, fellow senior Eric Rowe would be yanked back from his spot at corner to fill the void.

But that's not an indictment of the safety backups, said their coach, Morgan Scalley, on Thursday. It's just a feeling that the next corner — senior Wykie Freeman, at this point — is ahead of the next safety, and coaches want to get their best 11 players on the field.

One safety who has impressed during fall camp is Marcus Williams, and he appears to have a legitimate chance to follow in the footsteps of Utes like Rowe, Blechen and Eric Weddle by playing in the back end as a true freshman.

"He's ready," Scalley said. "He's got to gain some more weight. That was Eric Rowe's issue his freshman year, but he'll get there."

Williams is a little better at tracking the ball than Rowe was as a true freshman, Scalley said, but Rowe was a more physical player. Both, Scalley said, are as competitive as all get-out.

Scalley said Williams is "football smart," and spends every possible opportunity during his downtime studying film. He asks Blechen for help in the event he doesn't understand something.

Playing on both sides of the ball for Corona, California's Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Williams picked off six passes in 2013, returning them 175 yards, and caught 41 from his own quarterback for 924 yards and nine scores.

Though slight, at 6-0, 179, he's already one of the most athletic Utes, with a team-best 41-inch vertical and 10-foot, 8.5-inch broad jump during summer strength and conditioning tests. Williams said it's a combination of natural talent and effort: He's always wanted to be the best, and that continued when he arrived in Salt Lake City.

"I came in, worked hard all summer, and all my hard work is paying off right now," Williams said. "I feel like I got put in a good spot to come in here and play as a true freshman. I don't have to redshirt, I can contribute to the team."

Williams' co-backup at the free safety spot, former wide receiver Brian Allen, still needs a little more time to develop defensive instincts, Scalley said.

"But the thing that you want is a guy that's not soft," he said. "He doesn't shy away from contact. His tackling technique needs to improve, but he's willing to throw it in there."

Also, said Scalley, don't sleep on junior strong safety Charles Henderson. We haven't seen much of him in fall camp, but that's because coaches have been trying to get Allen, Williams and fellow true freshman Andre Godfrey acclimated to the defense. Henderson is a proven physical presence, Scalley said, and coaches are "very confident" in him.

***

Middle of it all • Many coaches consider it the most important element of any offensive play: Every down, every snap, the center has to deliver the ball safely to the quarterback.

In spring, as Siaosi Aiono learned the position for the first time, he had four miscues in this split-second facet of the game. Too many.

He spent summer working with quaterbacks, both on traditional snaps and out of the shotgun. They tried to work at real speed as much as they could. And now in his third week of fall camp, Aiono is seeing the fruits of those labors.

"This fall camp, I haven't had any — well, knock on wood — any problems with CQ exchanges," he said. "It kind of means a lot to me to get it as perfect as I can."

Leading up to next week's opener against Idaho State, Aiono has been the virtually unquestioned starter at center, a position he never played before this March. Between Isaac Asiata and Junior Salt, the Utes hope that putting Aiono in the middle will pay off handsomely against some of the tougher defensive tackles in the league.

The hardest part of moving from guard was learning to snap the ball and then block a 300-pound plus man lunging in his direction. It's a tricky balancing act.

"It's kind of hard to have one hand on the ball," Aiono said. "You can't put too much weight on it, or else everything gets jacked up. You gotta try to come off the ball and block somebody like that."

Against Idaho State, Aiono said he's eager to see his first real action at the position. There's always something to tweak, but he thinks he can handle even the team's most important task just fine.

"I always want to prove that I can do whatever they ask me to do," he said. "I want to show them I can play wherever the team needs me."

***

Scouts about • NFL scouts from nine NFL teams were on hand for Thursday afternoon's practice, including representatives from Arizona, Philadelphia, Carolina, Jacksonville, San Diego, Denver, New York, Kansas City and New England.

"The players certainly realize that they're out here," Whittingham said. "We keep camp closed until one week out, which today was that first day, so it's always a little bit of a motivational factor for the players to see the scouts out there watching them and taking notes."

Whittingham said he thinks Utah has players on every team that sent a scout, and that at 31 or so on NFL rosters right now, it might be an all-time high.

***

You scream, they scream • They teed off. They hit baseballs. They swam. They caught mile-high punts and they shot hoops. Thursday, the Camp Kyle Olympics wrapped up with ... an ice-cream eating contest.

A real, live ice cream truck rolled up, bells and all, and delivered a row of ice cream bars for Utah's nine player group delegates. The player to eat the most ice cream bars in the allotted time won his team an astronomical amount of points, toward some unknown end, and the winner was ... unclear. Nobody, maybe? Sources say there were some issues with the judging, but anyhow, watch for yourself:

***

Rowe v. Anderson • There might be no better barometer for how Eric Rowe can play corner than how he's faring against Dres Anderson.

The two seniors have been matched up often throughout the fall. Unfortunately for Rowe, Instagram has documented at least one of his more forgettable moments in that rivalry, when Anderson burned him for a long touchdown pass.

Anderson's fast feet make him a tough match-up for most cornerbacks, and the way he's had substantial success in practice may be concerning when the Utes face receivers such as ASU's Jaelen Strong or USC's Nelson Agholor this fall. But Rowe has been making progress, Anderson said.

Rowe's physicality helps at the line, and his one-on-one skills are getting better.

"I can tell when he first started out, it was a little shaky making that transition from safety to corner," he said. "I bet it's been hard. But he's doing better and better. I'm happy he's been going with me because it's just good competition."

***

Young looking to mature • Kenric Young's speed and sure-handedness has stuck out among the younger receivers. Kyle Whittingham has said Young may travel with the team this year and see some game action. His teammates think he has promise as well.

"He's been developing," Anderson said. "It's been coming a long way, but he's been getting better and better every day. He's going to be a big playmaker here one day."

Coach Taylor Stubblefield said he thinks Young also has done nice things, but as with any freshman, there's work to do on focus, knowing the playbook, and other mental aspects of the game.

"Kenric has a lot of talent," he said. "Mentally we've got to get him to mature a little bit to really allow him to become the player he has the ability to be one day."

***

Starting small • The receivers as a whole may have been the best group of fall camp, but Stubblefield isn't quite satisfied: He'd like additional consistency out of the group.

While everyone loves a good "home run" play — the old 50-yard bomb to the end zone — Stubblefield said in this offense, the receivers need to chip away efficiently before they can be deep threats.

"Really what they're asked to do is to make the routine play," he said. "Whether it's down the field, whether it's a five-yard hitch, we want to make sure we can take care of the little things so that they turn into big things."

Does that mean most of the offense will be short stuff? Not necessarily, Stubblefield said. There's a variety of looks the offense can show, from drop back short, to play action, to any number of set-ups. The important thing for him is that the Utes take some yards away on every snap.

"We have a lot we can do a lot in this offense," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all about executing."

***

Utah Man, not fan • After an alternate, gender-neutral version of the lyrics was created during the offseason, the Utes decided they will sing the original Utah Man song, said Whittingham.

They put it to a team vote, he said. Next on the players' ballots is team captaincies, on Friday night.

***

Camp cool-down • Whittingham said he's pleased with the progress made during camp, and the reason he canceled Thursday morning's scrimmage and has cut down on the volume of work is that he wants his players at 100 percent on Aug. 28 against Idaho State. Specifically, 100 percent physically.

"There's being fresh and there's being ready," he said. "You'd like to be both. If something's gotta give, you want to err on the side of being fresh."

Sophomore cornerback Reginald Porter is the only major injury loss for Utah this fall camp.

***

Highlight • We didn't witness much, but sophomore tight end Siale Fakailoatonga made a nice grab in traffic along the left sideline on a throw from Kendal Thompson. He seems to have made an impression on the coaches, too, after briefly falling behind Evan Moeai on the two-deep behind senior Westlee Tonga.

Standouts • Young gained separation twice across the middle in redzone work, and redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Cox found him both times for scores.

Position spotlight • It's just an observation, and maybe it means nothing, but redshirt freshman Filipo Mokofisi has run during the ones alongside Viliseni Fauonuku during the media-observed periods in the last couple practices. Coaches have praised Mokofisi's physical attributes and hand skills since spring, and it suggests that he's in the mix to play big minutes along with Sese Ianu, Clint Shepard and Lowell Lotulelei. Or it suggests nothing, and you should never listen to us.

Quote of the day • Freshman Jackson Barton told us he was sporting a quarter-shaved head to imitate junior defensive tackle Daniel Nielson at "Rookie Show," a skit the rookies put on for the veterans. We asked Whittingham about Barton's hair, and then whether the Rookie Show would be shared with the greater world: "Absolutely not. That's in-house. That never gets out. NEVER gets out."

— Matthew Piper and Kyle Goon

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon