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Utah football notes: Travis Wilson helps first-grader in cancer fight
First Published Sep 01 2014 02:41 pm • Last Updated Sep 02 2014 05:16 pm

When Utah quarterback Travis Wilson torpedoed over an Idaho State defender for a touchdown last Thursday, as fearless as ever, he wasn’t even the most courageous guy on the field.

That would be Rose Springs Elementary first-grader Matthew Burr, an honorary captain for the Utes due to Wilson’s involvement with the Jessie Rees Foundation, which helps kids fighting cancer "Never Ever Give Up."

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Wilson said he learned about NEGU as a counselor at the Elite 11 camp for top prep quarterbacks in Beaverton, Ore., over the summer. He told foundation staff when he returned to Salt Lake City that he wanted to do something to help out, and they were able to put together a special day for the 6-year-old Burr and his family.

Burr accompanied the team on the Ute Walk to the stadium before the game, walked out with Utah’s captains for the coin toss, and received T-shirts and a signed football.

Wilson said after the game he saw him with "a huge smile on his face," and that he hopes to provide another opportunity like this for somebody in the future.

"It’s been great being a part of this, and it really just shows that I’m not just playing for myself, I’m playing for other people," he said. "I’m just really happy I could bring the kid out and kind of make his day."

***

Domo on D » Since beginning to play on both sides of the ball after cornerback Reginald Porter went down with a season-ending knee injury, sophomore Dominique Hatfield was considered a wideout playing some cornerback.

That’s reversed now, said head coach Kyle Whittingham on Monday.

"His debut at corner was very good," Whittingham said. "He did a lot of good things, and he’s going to get his opportunity to start. He’s still a two-way player. He’s still going to be playing some receiver as well."


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Hatfield had one catch for 9 yards, two pass breakups and one tackle in the opener. He was listed on Monday’s latest depth chart as a co-starter on the outside with senior Davion Orphey.

True freshman running back Tavaris Williams has also made the move full-time to corner after playing some against Idaho State in the opener, Whittingham said. Like Hatfield, Williams played some corner in high school, and the head coach emphasized that the move is not a reflection of "panic mode" in the secondary, but rather the feeling that Williams has a higher ceiling at the position.

Helping matters in the secondary is that Justin Thomas, who missed last week due to undisclosed reasons, is expected back at nickel Saturday.

***

Two-deep thoughts » Senior transfer Kaelin Clay made his mark on Idaho State’s game as a punt and kick returner, but despite catching just two passes for 13 yards, he’s moved ahead of redshirt freshman wideout Delshawn McClellon in the slot.

"When the ball’s in his hands, he’s dangerous," Whittingham said. "... He proved to us that he’s as advertised and very dynamic when he has the football."

Whittingham said it took Clay a while to adjust to the altitude in Salt Lake City and that he’s still improving mentally and physically.

"I’m going to work as hard as I can," Clay said. "If that means staying after practice or coming in early to run, then that’s what I have to do."

Also of note on the depth chart: Clay is all be his lonesome as the No. 1 punt returner, with junior running back Bubba Poole now listed as backup and not co-starter. Junior running back Devontae Booker is also on the kick returning two-deep, and senior Sese Ianu is now co-starter at defensive tackle with junior Viliseni Fauonuku, not at nose tackle with junior Clint Shepard.

***

Aiono’s absence » Siaosi Aiono was dressed for last Thursday’s game, but backup Hiva Lutui started at center while Aiono was mysteriously sidelined.

Whittingham addressed that Monday.

"It’s going to be great to get Siaosi at center," he said. "He’s a guy that had a very good spring and had a good fall camp and didn’t play because I wasn’t pleased with some things that are between me and him. But he’ll be back in the lineup this week."

In his place, Lutui struggled at times, particularly on the first drive of the second half, when a bad snap resulted in a hard hit on backup quarterback Kendal Thompson.

***

Good Book » A couple of fumbles in fall camp briefly cost junior transfer Devontae Booker a spot on the depth chart.

After one week of the season, some are beginning to wonder how long it is before he starts.

Junior starter Bubba Poole had a solid game against the Bengals, rushing for 42 yards on six carries, but Booker stole the show, rushing 10 times for 78 yards and a touchdown and catching a bubble screen from Wilson and taking it 61 yards down the right sideline.

Whittingham was among those who were impressed.

"He definitely will be more of a factor this week," he said.

***

Gionni geared up » Utah junior linebacker Gionni Paul sat out last season after transferring from Miami.

He doesn’t want to sit out anymore.

Coaches have hinted that Paul could be back as early as Fresno State after breaking his foot in spring camp, but there was no update Monday. If he’s not back against the Bulldogs, they expect him to return after the bye week for Utah’s matchup with Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"He was in the locker room before the last game, pumping everyone up," said fellow junior linebacker Jason Whittingham. "I felt last year what he’s feeling right now, with my injury to start off the season."

***

Making the grade » Asked about low offensive line grade for senior captain Junior Salt, Whittingham first asked Sports Information Director Liz Abel who gave permission to release those.

Was it offensive line coach Jim Harding? Yes, it was, she said.

"OK, great. I didn’t know we do that."

When the laughter stopped, Whittingham said he’s not worried about Salt’s 67 percent.

"Junior’s one of our better players," Whittingham said. "He’s determined. He’s disappointed by how he played, and there’s no question in mind that he’s going to be, over the long haul, a very good player for us."

Here’s the full report card:

***

Torrid Tonga » Senior tight end Westlee Tonga had almost as many catches in little more than a half of play Thursday (five) as he had previously in four years at Utah (seven).

Whittingham said Monday that they expect that to continue.

"He’s a guy that we think is a very prolific tight end as far as in the throw game," he said, adding that Tonga won’t be asked to do a lot of blocking at the line of scrimmage.

***

Head of the Pac » Today in sure things, Clay was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week after returning a punt 46 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

According to the release, he was one of just four FBS players to return a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown during the opening weekend.

Eric Rowe, who blocked a field goal, and Tom Hackett, who punished Idaho State in the field-position game with his punting and also had a rush for 28 yards, could have easily been nominated as well.

With 2.5 sacks in the first half, Nate Orchard received a nomination for Defensive Player of the Week (which went to UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks, who had 16 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception returned for a touchdown), and Booker was nominated for Offensive Player of the Week (USC quarterback Cody Kessler, who passed for 394 yards and four TDs and ran for another against Fresno State).

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper



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