Monson: Weddle steps into newest role: leader
Eric Weddle is not sleepy or tired, not bushed or spent or injured.
The best college football player in the state says he feels better physically than he ever has coming into a season. In past years, he's battled the remnants of a ripped medial collateral ligament, a separated shoulder, a torn hamstring, and a broken elbow.
Now, he is whole again.
It's just that he's a bit . . . well, played through, if there is such a condition. For the fourth straight summer, Weddle has poured everything he has into preparing for Utah football, including healing, after pouring everything he had into the season before.
Same routine, same surroundings, same effort, same drill.
The only thing that hasn't been the same is the position he plays. But, even there, the diversity of positions has been the same.
He's started every year at the school, flipping back and forth from cornerback to safety, from nickel back to holder, from punt returner to punter, from quarterback to slot back, always having leadership roles cast upon him because he was so darn good.
Not just good, but . . . thorough.
"We have to prepare - all the time," Weddle says. "We have to do the little things to win."
That all-fired mix of attitude and ability is transforming him now, after so much experience, into something beyond all of the above, beyond a kind of multifaceted Dudley Do-Right.
"He's a team leader and he's accepted that role," says Ute defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. "He's such a great athlete, he has great instincts, and he's so mentally tough. He prepares for an opponent like no one I've ever been around."
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
We've heard it all before, and so has he.
His transformation is bigger than just that.
He's aware of the accolades spoken about him, he knows he's an All-America candidate, knows he's the reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He's sat near the top of college football after the Fiesta Bowl win two seasons back. He's been asked every question that can be asked a college football player, and that's revealed by way of a weary quality to his expression during interviews. Occasionally, he even slips into the third-person when speaking about himself.
Weddle fully grasps what he brings to the Utes and he'll bring it, again, knowing too well the challenge at hand. He's hoisted the requirements out of himself each season, and he'll hoist once more, hopeful that his teammates follow along.
Sometimes, they have. Sometimes, they haven't.
Mostly, they have.
In his time at Utah, the Utes have won 29 games and lost seven. After one stretch last year, they found themselves at 5-5, teetering on the brink of a losing record, before conjuring one of their most stirring moments with an overtime win over Brigham Young in Provo.
Afterward, Weddle said: "When we play with passion, the way we know how to play, we can play with anyone. Here, we believed in each other. In half our losses, we didn't, we fell apart. But, against BYU, we believed."
At this point, three days before Utah's season opener against UCLA, a school for which the native Southern Californian once rooted and wanted to play, he's all about continuing his ongoing preparation for the business at hand.
"It starts in the spring and summer," he says. "It's not about preparing the day before a game, when you walk into the Rose Bowl. It's about doing things right. That way, when you go to play, nothing fazes you - because you already know. We practice hard, we practice at a certain tempo. You block out the things you can't control, and take care of the things you can.
"I think this team is getting that. We all know what the coaches want. We've been able to concentrate on technique, because the effort is already there."
Still, a week ago, the senior got fed up, unleashing his anger and exerting his will on teammates during a less-than-inspired performance in practice.
"I had to say a few things to the guys," he says. "This season is about starting fast. We can't have any bad days. We can't start slow on Saturday, or we'll be down 21-0 in the first quarter."
Weddle's aforementioned metamorphosis, then, is about carrying greater responsibility - like a coach, like a mother hen. He's already been just a player, already worried about fulfilling his own duties. Now, he's jumped across that figurative crevasse, straight into shouldering a combo pack of team obligation and accountability.
"For a team like us, we're not two or three deep at every position like USC," he says. "We don't have eight or nine Eric Weddles. We have some great players, but we have to outwork opponents."
If that sounds boastful, it's spoken more as factual - by a mostly humble man who has pretty much accomplished everything there is to accomplish at Utah, and meant more to his team over the past three seasons, a span that saw Ute football reach new heights, than any other player ever to have been in the program.
"I just want to win," he says. "My teammates know that's what I'm all about. If we win a championship, then, I've succeeded."