There's only so much practice one can watch before wondering, "Yeah, but how do they look in a game?"
Utah's Red-White Spring Game on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium will start filling in the blanks for the football team and its fans. It's the last chance a lot of players have to make an impression prior to the doldrums of summer workouts. While it won't be the last word in who starts and who sits, spring game performances can certainly make a powerful statement.
The game starts at 1 p.m., with 10-minute quarters. The clock will switch from standard rules in the first half to running clock in the second half, separated by an eight-minute halftime period. In the spirit of competition, if one team scores but is still down by 10 or more, that team will keep possession and try to keep narrowing the gap. Expect more surprises out of the offense, as the defense is limited to "base" sets.
Here's a unit-by-unit breakdown of some camp story lines to follow for Saturday's big game:
OFFENSIVE LINE • While this position group will be a little tough to gauge since the linemen will be distributed onto two rosters instead of the ones playing cohesively, the game should allow either Isaac Asiata or J.J. Dielman - or both - to shine on Saturday. The two are in the mix for starting right tackle in the fall, in a battle that's been characterized as back-and-forth. Also worth watching: Marc Pouvave is back in the mix at guard, although Salesi Utahafe has been a surprise riser this spring. Center Siaosi Aiono has raised a few eyebrows in recent practices with high snaps to Travis Wilson, and coach Jim Harding said while he's confident in Aiono, it's an issue that he'll need to get under control as he tries to get more push off the snap.
QUARTERBACK • Matt Piper has more info on the quarterback battle in today's main story, but the skinny is this: Travis Wilson will be the only quarterback not live on Saturday. Fans may be more intrigued by the battle between Conner Manning and Adam Schulz for the backup role. Both just so happen to be on the White team roster, so the comparison should be easier to make. Both are fighting to leave a good impression headed into the summer, when Kendal Thompson joins the fray. Wilson's limited work also leaves a door open for Brandon Cox, who has shown flashes of potential. He might need a great Saturday to keep his name in the conversation.
RUNNING BACK • Devontae Booker splashed on the scene early in practice with some big plays. Since then, he and Bubba Poole have been the top two at the position. With Booker seeming to have plenty of momentum, this could be the moment when he shows his potential to fans. Or Poole, who has plenty of versatility, could stave off the newcomer and keep at the top of the depth chart into the summer. Troy McCormick is widely considered the next back up, thanks to his speed and pinball elusiveness, but what of Dre'Vian Young? Much like Brandon Cox at QB, Young is in danger of getting buried, particularly with talented freshmen on the way in the fall.
RECEIVER • Unsurprisingly, Dres Anderson has owned this position, making sparkling plays just about every practice this spring. Behind him is where things start getting interesting. Delshawn McClellon looks to continue to establish himself as a starting-caliber player. Micah Thomas has made one or two big plays, but will he definitely stick as a receiver? He'll have a chance to prove that on the White team. Also on the White team: Kenneth Scott. The big-bodied wideout has been held back in 11-on-11 live reps, but it's worth wondering if the receiver - who has said several times he's fully healthy - gets a shot to make some plays in the spring game.
TIGHT END • Westlee Tonga has done nothing to relinquish his top dog status here. He seems very clearly the starter entering the summer, and with Dave Christensen using more single tight end sets, he might be the only one who gets in regularly come fall. But Harrison Handley may yet make a push to end the spring. The freshman has gained a lot of girth to his tall frame, and he has quality hands. He and Siale Fakailoatonga will both try to stand out on the Red team. At the moment, Fakailoatonga is just ahead of Handley on the depth chart.
DEFENSIVE LINE • There's still some guys missing, but a few have returned. Look to see signs that Filipo Mokofisi and Seni Fauonuku are healthy, although it's possible one or both will be limited or held out from live work. Other guys on the line have big opportunities to be starters or in the rotation this fall. Jason Fanaika and Hunter Dimick are pretty even at the moment, and one of them should hope to be making a big impression Saturday with sacks or clogging up the run. Then there's Pita Taumoepenu, who has captured attention for his penchant for bringing down quarterbacks. If he keeps doing it, he'll start pushing for serious playing time.
LINEBACKERS • In this banged up group, there are a lot of studs missing. As has been the case for the last two weeks, however, Marcus Sanders-Williams is a guy to watch. The converted running back is still learning the playbook, but his athleticism helps him do some dazzling things. Saturday may be an indication if he'll stick at that position. Uaea Masina is a player many of the coaches are excited about, but it will be intriguing to watch if he'll get linebacker and safety reps, and what he shows in either role. Further down the depth chart, a lot of walk-ons get chances to prove they belong at this level: Aaron Borg and Christian Drews are two new walk-ons who might get their shot Saturday.
CORNERBACKS • If he isn't feeling more ill than he was on Thursday - there's a bug going around the team at the moment - Eric Rowe should be the one to watch here. Moving forward, he's a corner for sure. Coaches want him to improve his man coverage, and for plenty of fans, Saturday will be the first time to see him in that role. Reggie Porter has stepped up as a playmaker this spring as well, and will look to lock down the other side. In all, look for interceptions: Something the Utes didn't get much of last year. Coach Sharrieff Shah said he's seen more plays on the ball in the air this spring than he has since he joined the staff. Can that translate?
SAFETIES • Between this group and linebackers, it's hard to choose who is limping worse to the finish line of spring. This group will be somewhat of a motley crew in the game, with players such as Masina and walk-on Jeff Gaston possibly filling in. Fans will be able to enjoy the return of Brian Blechen, however, who the Utes are counting on to add more playmaking punch to the defense overall. Still, this isn't necessarily how the unit will look this fall, so take safety play with a grain of salt.
SPECIAL TEAMS • Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips are listed as potential All-American candidates in the Utah media guide, so there's no suspense who will start there. But it will be good for fans to see down the depth chart: Can Jon Halliday, Chris Van Orden and Gaston really kick with accuracy? Depth is important in all areas, even with specialists. There won't be live punt or kickoff returns, so no need to worry about that role yet.
Trying to get to the game? TRAX is offering free passes to commuters coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium. The festivities start at 6 a.m. with a tailgate for pre-registered fans, with a food competition at 11 a.m., the MUSS football game starting at the same time, and an alumni game starting at noon.
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