No, spectators' eyes weren't deceiving them on Thursday afternoon.
That was Uaea Masina out in the defensive backfield, taking reps at free safety with Charles Henderson not participating. After practice, kicker Jeff Gaston also tweeted that Kyle Whittingham had told him to be prepared with free safety reps.
Between his thinning safety corps and the 72-degree weather, it was perhaps surprising that there were no beads of sweat to be found on safeties coach Morgan Scalley's brow. Although spring finds his position group needing some fill-ins, come fall, he expects to be dealing with a fully stocked shelf.
"That's more of a Spring Game deal there, with us holding out guys, guys being sick, guys being injured," he said. "With the Spring Game, it's all for the fans, so we want to be sure we can field a team."
Scalley prefers to look at the bright side. Henderson only missed practice because of a short-term bug currently going around the team, and could be back for Saturday's game.
While he's lost one safety in Eric Rowe to the cornerbacks, he's regained a healthy Brian Blechen. Evan Eggiman has been showing promise, getting one reps on Thursday.
And come June, the Utes will bring in three freshman safeties, plus Tevin Carter who is already with the program. Once the safeties get past spring ball - suddenly, depth issues? Those dry up.
"We're going to rely on some incoming freshmen, which isn't new to this program," Scalley said. "Eric Rowe came in as a freshman. Brian Blechen played as a freshman. It's one of those positions where, if you coach them up right, you'll be fine."
Speaking of Rowe, Utes fans can expect to see him play out all his Spring Game reps at cornerback, barring the premise every other safety catches a cold.
Cornerback coach Sharrieff Shah said the biggest transition for Rowe has been working in man coverage on every down. He's still working on keeping track of his receiver in some cases, but the coaching staff has been encouraged by his progress.
"The biggest thing he brings is a physical presence on the edge that we lacked last season," Shah said. "He's crashed down in some of our zone coverages for tackles for a loss, he's reacted to screens in an aggressive manner. And when you run a 4.39 at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, it's hard to throw over you."
OFFENSIVE HIGHLIGHT • Sophomore linebacker Uaea Masina not only filled in at safety in Thursday's practice, but he also wore yellow tank top and mimed a receiver during coverage scheming. On one pass into traffic, Masina twice tipped it before gracefully securing it with outstretched arms.
DEFENSIVE HIGHLIGHT • What defense? There was no hitting Thursday, and the highlight for spectators was probably watching corners coach Sharrieff Shah explaining best practices on various coverage choices. Forced to pick a player, redshirt freshman linebacker Tanner Larsen gets the honor for his sure-handed pick on junior quarterback Adam Schulz in rush-free work.
STANDOUTS • Sophomore linebacker convert Marcus Sanders-Williams was in position to make a handful of plays in crossover work, many of them in coverage. He continues to look like he's been playing linebacker for more than a week - which, of course, he has if you include high school.
KEEP AN EYE ON • The Red-White Game. It's all that's left until fall camp. Teams even spent a portion of Thursday practicing how they'll line up and play that game. It starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but get there at noon and watch Ute alumni face off against each other for all of the imaginary marbles.
QUOTE OF THE DAY • "I don't do bees!" - redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Cox while evading a honeybee like it was senior defensive end Nate Orchard. It seems the experience of senior linebacker Brian Blechen three years ago has had a lasting effect on the team's psyche.
Kyle Goon and Matt Piper
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