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Utah football: Sean Fitzgerald ready to step into bigger role

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sean Fitzgerald tries to reach for a pass as the University of Utah's football team holds their first preseason scrimmage at the stadium on Tuesday, August 13, 2013.

By Lya Wodraska

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 05 2013 08:41AM
Updated Sep 5, 2013 11:39PM

Sean Fitzgerald might get a lot of ribbing from his teammates for being one of the "old men," on Utah’s team, but the 25-year-old is far from feeling elderly by athletic standards.

If anything, the receiver is feeling some new life with an opportunity to play in a starting role for the Utes this year.

Fitzgerald, who is the third oldest player on the team behind defensive end Trevor Reilly and offensive lineman Junior Salt by a matter of months, has been designated as Utah’s No. 3 receiver in place of Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending lower leg injury in the first quarter of Utah’s win over Utah State.

Fitzgerald had five catches for 79 yards while Anthony Denham had six for 113 yards in the game, but Fitzgerald edged out Denham for the starting nod.

"He is a true pro in my opinion," Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson said. "When his time came he made huge plays for us. He isn’t going to beat you deep a lot but he catches the ball and is smart and can play every position so he brings a lot to the team."

The California native’s best moments against the Aggies came in the closing minutes of the third quarter when he caught successive passes of 22 and 26 yards to set up a touchdown that put the Utes ahead 24-23. To put his performance in perspective, Fitzgerald’s one-game total surpassed what he made in the previous four seasons with the Utes. A member of Utah’s 2006 signing class, he had just four catches for 61 yards in his career, all of which came last year.

To say his journey to a starting job has been a long one is an understatement.

"It feels great to have this opportunity," he said. "I’ve been working hard it it and I feel like I have the support and trust of the team so I’m excited."

Fitzgerald’s career with the Utes started normally enough: he signed with Utah then went on an LDS Church mission, "which he served in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl.

He redshirted upon his return in 2009, then played sparingly in 2010 as a member of Utah’s special teams.

He was hoping to make his mark as a receiver in 2011, but hamstring injuries hampered his abilities and he earned playing time in just six games and finished without a catch.

More injuries slowed him at the start of 2012 but he managed to get in nine games with his best performance being two catches for 50 yards against Washington State.

A solid preseason camp made him a contender for the No. 3 position.

"The hamstrings are good and I feel better," he said. "I’ve been playing football for a while now. I’m 25 years old, but I feel good."

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has been vocal in pointing out that there was a huge gap between Scott and fellow starter Dres Anderson and the rest of the receivers. However, Fitzgerald is confident he can close that gap with more reps.

He might not be as dynamic or as fast as Scott, but at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds he is still a big target.

"Scott getting hurt changes the dynamic in a huge way," he said. "He is a leader and his energy he brings to the field, I know I have to step in and fill that void as one of the receivers. We have to play our hearts out to deliver, that is what he would have done."

Fitzgerald and quarterback Travis Wilson said the two have a good rapport, which should help the transition.

"Sean is good at running routes and he finds ways to get open," Wilson said.

"We always kid him about being an old man, but Fitz has been doing a great job and will make a great wide receiver for us this year," Wilson added.

Fitzgerald joked he has more aches and pains now that he is older but that he feels younger. He’d better, because the Utes need him now more than ever.

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