Utah football: Spring brings new positions for Utes Eric Rowe, Jeremiah Poutasi and Micah Thomas
Tuesday's spring practice was the first time Utah redshirt freshman Micah Thomas had ever lined up as a wide receiver.
Ever. Not in youth football, not in high school, not in his dreams.
As you might expect, it showed. Facing Division I defensive backs who have preyed upon wideouts' missteps since they were tykes, Thomas was rarely in position to make a catch. When he was, he often dropped the ball.
But Utah coaches expect these struggles to be temporary: Thomas has the raw athletic talent and the intelligence, they say, to become the latest onetime quarterback to switch positions and thrive elsewhere for the Utes.
To name a few: DeVonte Christopher (wideout), Brian Blechen (safety), Paul Kruger (defensive end) and Chad Manis (linebacker).
It has become a hallmark of the Kyle Whittingham era to find another place on the field for those of his best athletes who, like Thomas, have the misfortune of playing the same position as another highly regarded Ute.
Fans this spring have seen Thomas, senior Eric Rowe, and to a lesser extent, junior Jeremiah Poutasi show glimpses of promise and occasional growing pains in their new roles.
Coaches first broached the idea with Thomas a few weeks before spring camp. He has continued to attend quarterback meetings, and on Tuesday and Saturday he still got some reps at QB, but most of his time thus far has been spent dotting a sea of red wideout jerseys with his QB light gray.
Thomas was a dual-threat signal caller as a prep at Houston's North Shore High, passing for 849 yards and rushing for 734.
At Utah, though, Thomas is buried behind juniors Travis Wilson and Adam Schulz, as well as fellow redshirt freshmen Conner Manning and Brandon Cox. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson is expected to compete for the starting job in the fall. Freshman Donovan Isom will also arrive in fall, and 2015 will bring Wyoming transfer Jason Thompson and return missionary Chase Hansen.
"Right now, with how many guys that we have [at quarterback], you have to find ways to help the team and contribute, so that's what I'm trying to do," Thomas said.
Other receivers have been gracious about teaching Thomas the tricks of their trade, with players like seniors Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott demonstrating route structures and hand movements while Thomas listens intently.
Thomas said he also appreciates the feedback he's gotten from first-year wideouts coach Taylor Stubblefield, a former Purdue All-American with 316 receptions at the NCAA level, who himself played a little QB in high school. After each rep, Stubblefield tells Thomas whether or not he could have done anything better.
"We're trying to find a way to get him on the field," Stubblefield says. "He has the ability to do it, we're just trying to get him skilled up so that he can have some success out there."
Although Thomas' odds of seeing the field this fall aren't yet apparent, coaches expect senior Eric Rowe to be an all-conference candidate whether or not they move him from free safety where he has started for three years to cornerback.
Rowe is listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds and seems to fit the mold of another Ute role-switcher, former wideout and running back and current Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. Asked for his first impressions, Saturday, he joked, "It's a lot more running than safety, I know that."
The technique is different, Rowe said, but the coverages are simple because Utah plays man defense. Thus far he's enjoyed dueling it out in coverage with the likes of Scott, but it breaks his heart a little that he doesn't get to hit as often. At Saturday's practice, he showed little remorse after violating the no-tackle rule.
"The only hit I got," he said. "I made sure I took advantage of it and tackled him down. They got mad, but I don't even care."
Poutasi may be the most eager to switch. But then, his moves from left tackle as a true freshman to right tackle last year and now, tentatively, left guard aren't as unusual: In their four years, college linemen often embark on such coast-to-coast tours.
Offensive line coach Jim Harding said Poutasi could easily find himself back at tackle before long.
"Nothing's set in stone right now," Harding said. "The way we run our inside zone, we want to try to get some more push on the inside, and obviously he's a bigger body."
Poutasi, trimmed to about 330 pounds from upward of 345 last year, says the move suits him. He sometimes had a tough time staying in front of the speedy Pac-12 defensive ends who were after his quarterback, and now he'll have a more stationary target to brawl with inside.
"I think it's a great fit for me," he said. "I think it's more natural for me, for my kind of body size."
He played guard in high school sometimes, but only to pull, he said. If he can just improve his handwork, Poutasi said, he will be a happy spring camper.
"It's more physical, it's more fun."
Changes of scenery
• Redshirt freshman Micah Thomas, who passed for 849 yards and rushed for 734 as a high school quarterback in Houston, has gotten reps as a receiver in spring practice.
• Senior Eric Rowe, a starter for three years at safety, has seen time at cornerback. Rowe is listed at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds.
• Junior Jeremiah Poutasi, who played at left tackle and right tackle during his first two years, is tentatively at left guard.