Redshirt freshman quarterback Conner Manning said his midweek move to No. 2 on the depth chart didn’t change his approach. He’s not a made man, and he never will be.
Not even after the 6-foot-1 Orange County native — whose redshirt made for water cooler fodder when the Ute offense struggled last season — went 9-for-12 in Saturday’s scrimmage and threw for three touchdowns. His closest competitor, junior Adam Schulz, was a ho-hum 6-for-13 for 34 yards. But head coach Kyle Whittingham said it was still too soon to evaluate the quarterbacks’ performances — coaches will check the tape for broken route structures and the like — and that his immediate best guess was that junior starter Travis Wilson outshone them all.
Statistics from Saturday’s scrimmage
Passing » Wilson 19-41-0, 184 yards, 2 TDs; Manning 9-12-0, 116 yards, 3 TDs; Schulz 6-13-0, 34 yards
Rushing » McCormick 5 carries, 134 yards, 1 TD; Young 5 carries, 20 yards; Poole 7 carries, 16 yards; Booker 5 carries, 11 yards; Wilson 3 carries, 11 yards; Schulz 1 carry, 11 yards, Manning 2 carries, -9 yards
Receiving » Anderson 8 catches, 111 yards, 1 TD; Moeai 3 catches, 66 yards; Tonga 5 catches, 62 yards, 1 TD; Allen 3 catches, 30 yards, 1 TD; McClellon 3 catches, 22 yards, 1 TD; Fakailoatonga 4 catches, 20 yards, 1 TD; McCormick 2 catches, 9 yards; Norwood 1 catch, 7 yards; Handley 1 catch, 5 yards; Young 1 catch, 4 yards; Booker 1 catch, -1 yards; Poole 2 catches, -2 yards
"Whether it’s season, offseason, summer, fall, whatever," Manning said. "Competition never stops."
Wilson wasn’t particularly efficient at 19-for-41, but he had no turnovers and marched the Utes 184 yards for a touchdown apiece to his favorite targets this spring, seniors Dres Anderson and Westlee Tonga. Anderson finished with eight receptions for 111 yards, while Tonga had five catches for 62 yards. Junior tight end Evan Moeai added three receptions for 62 yards.
"I feel perfect," Wilson said afterward. "My body feels healthy, and I’ve definitely got to gain a couple pounds, but other than that I feel really good."
Unlike Wilson, Manning and Schulz were "live" for the first part of practice and thus fair game for pass rushers. Manning’s touchdown passes came to sophomores Delshawn McClellon, Siale Fakailoatonga (red zone work) and Brian Allen (two-minute drill).
"He’s so precise with his throwing," Anderson said. "He reads defenses well and he knows where to throw it and when to throw it. That’s his advantage."
Redshirt freshman Brandon Cox received only a few reps against the No. 3 defense at the tail end of practice and was intercepted by senior Chandler Johnson. Running back Troy McCormick gave fans a glimpse of the extra dimension he adds to the Utes rushing attack, ripping off two 50-plus-yard runs that included a 60-yard score.
"That boy was blazing," Anderson said. "Every time he got a hole or got outside and got in the open field, he was loose."
He’s still a work in progress, McCormick acknowledged. He coughed up a fumble that was recovered by converted sophomore safety Hipolito Corporan for a touchdown and says he needs to improve at pass blocking and get his weight up to 175 pounds. But McCormick said he’s learned to be patient and that while east-west runs distinguished him Saturday, he’s just as comfortable running up the middle.
Juniors Devontae Booker and Bubba Poole — who both excelled in past 11 on 11 work this spring — combined for just 27 yards on 12 carries Saturday.
Whittingham said the most glaring issue for the offense remains tempo. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has used a 20-second play clock to hammer home the message, but they’re still not there, Whittingham said.
"Not nearly fast enough," Whittingham said. "The sense of urgency to get the ball snapped is not where it needs to be."
Playing again without a number of starters, the defense nonetheless showed improvement from Utah’s first spring scrimmage last Friday.
Sophomore defensive end Pita Taumoepenu — who said coaches tell him "Just go get the quarterback" — recorded two sacks. His goal is to get a sack each practice, he said, and if he doesn’t, "That makes me feel bad. That means I [didn’t] work hard enough."
Taumoepenu’s fellow defensive standouts include sophomore cornerback Reginald Porter, who broke up four passes, and redshirt freshman safety Evan Eggiman, who had two tackles for a loss.
On special teams, the play of the day was Andy Phillips hitting a 59-yard field goal and then performing a handspring into a flip that Red Rocks coach Greg Marsden would’ve been proud of. Whittingham said that before practice Phillips told him he felt good from 60. "He said, ‘That’s my spot.’"
"I’m not sure about the backflip after. Pretty impressive, but we don’t want a bunch of guys doing that."
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