Utah cornerbacks Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse grew up in the southeastern United States, joined the Utes as a junior college transfer and hope to become a starter in his senior season.
Only one will.
They’re distinguishable by their height, basketball ability and singing voices, but not by football talent. Lewis is listed No. 1 on the preseason depth chart, although that status is subject to revision.
The two won’t play along when asked about competing against each other, while doing extra work to improve their own games. Six groundskeepers were replacing divots on the practice field Monday afternoon and student managers were gathering the water coolers as Lewis crouched in a corner, shadowing an imaginary receiver.
Lewis is 5-foot-10¾, as cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah thoroughly profiles him. A teammate labels him a “sleeper athlete,” with jumping ability that offsets his lack of height. Lewis can sing “a little bit,” he said.
Nurse is 6-3, possessing the length that coaches like in a corner. The former walk-on receiver fits the physical profile of former Ute star Sean Smith. Nurse is known for engaging opponents in chatter, even if he denies Utah safety Julian Blackmon’s claim that he talks as much as Blackmon does. He loves to sing Michael Jackson songs; “Human Nature” is his go-to selection.
Coaches enjoy competition in camp. Backup quarterback Jason Shelley technically is competing for a starting job, held by senior Tyler Huntley. Yet there's something about a genuine position battle that makes August interesting, and the Utes have one at the cornerback spot opposite All-Pac-12 player Jaylon Johnson.
“They both do phenomenally good things, so it's a good problem for us to have, to make that competitive,” Shah said. “Neither one has separated from each other, but gosh, they're doing good work. … The battle for a position has never turned combative or confrontational; it's almost complimentary.”
The coaching staff’s confidence in them is among the reasons Blackmon could move to safety from cornerback, where he made the All-Pac-12 second team.
The corners are coached by Shah, a former personal injury attorney whose 2012 hiring by coach Kyle Whittingham was viewed by outsiders as a recruiting-driven move, considering Shah’s outgoing personality and southern California background. Shah has grown markedly as a coach, by Whittingham’s account.
"The guy has got endless energy and passion,” Whittingham said. “Genuine love for his players, love for the game. He has immersed himself in the techniques and details of the corner position. Ever since he got on board, he has been doing professional development, traveled around the country. He’s got a burning desire to be the best.”
Shah's job this month is to pick Lewis or Nurse as the starter and then keep the runner-up engaged, knowing that even Johnson will required an occasional rest and a third cornerback (in addition to slot corner Javelin Guidry) will be needed at various times during the season.
Lewis came to Utah from Florida via Riverside (Calif.) Community College. Nurse attended high schools in South Carolina and Georgia and spent time in junior colleges in Georgia and Texas.
“I try not to think of the future or what’s ahead, just focusing on each day, getting better,” Nurse said. “That’s how I’m looking at the competition.”
Lewis said, “We don't see it as competition. We're just trying to get better, make everybody else better that's behind us. We just play the game.”
Lewis played high school basketball in Florida. “Actually, that was my first love, before football,” he said. “It'll always be in my heart.”
“Most people think that they can go over the top of him,” Blackmon said of Lewis, “but the thing about him is he’s really athletic; he can jump really high as well.”
The irony is Nurse looks more like a basketball player at 6-3, with long arms that help him make plays in the secondary. He sang in high school choruses, although his performances are limited these days. He'll sing “in the shower, maybe; not really in front of people,” he said. “Unless people ask, then I'll give it to 'em.”
On the field, Blackmon said, “The thing about Nurse is he’s really long and he has a lot of attitude ... I talk a lot too. He talks more than me. He’s definitely one of those guys, a competitor, man.”
So is Lewis, although he and Nurse are thinking only of receivers as their opponents. Not each other.