Utah awards scholarships to walk-on players in entertaining ways — and shares it with everyone

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utah tight end Ali'i Niumatalolo has received a scholarship, going into his senior season.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham looked surprised when the name of offensive lineman Kyle Lanterman's mother flashed on the phone as he addressed the team after a spring football practice session.

Running back Mason Woodward’s wife disguised her face beneath a cap and sunglasses, blending into the row of athletic trainers standing in front of the players.

Ken Niumatalolo pretended to have forgotten to mention something else when he appeared in a video with his Navy football team during preseason camp, expressing support to the Utes and his son, tight end Ali’i Niumatalolo.

Whittingham expressed mild disgust when he learned the pizza delivery guy, interrupting a team meeting, was looking for defensive end Malik Haynes.

The actors did their parts adequately and the enthusiastic reactions of the players’ teammates appeared genuine. Whittingham awarded financial aid to three veteran, non-scholarship players in three days last week (school started Monday), creating a series of celebrations amid the drudgery of preseason camp.

Everything in major college athletics is a production these days, moving beyond the era when a coach privately would call an athlete into the office and award a scholarship. Whittingham labels himself part of the “think tank” of staff members who design and execute the presentations. They’re filmed and distributed, honoring the walk-on who gets a promotion and furthering the image of a closely bonded program.

The reviews have been favorable. NBC Sports tweeted the Utes are “getting REALLY good with their surprise scholarship announcements.”

Whittingham enjoys playing his role. “One of the best aspects of being a head coach [is] seeing these guys come in and bust their tails for two, three, four years – just bleed and sweat like everybody else but pay their own way the entire time … to be able to reward them is very gratifying,” he said.

FBS programs including Utah, BYU and Utah State can provide 85 football scholarships. Whittingham keeps a few slots open for incoming transfers during the summer; another scholarship became available in late July when linebacker Manny Bowen left the team. Whittingham placed Niumatalolo, Haynes and Woodward on scholarship last week in moves that evoked good memories for Lanterman from last spring.

The lineman was shocked during his presentation, with his mother, Roberta, dialing into the post-practice huddle via a staff member’s phone and announcing his scholarship. He now can sense when other awards are coming. Lanterman knew right away that something was amiss with Friday’s pizza delivery, even as teammates looked surprised when Whittingham read the name on the box and said in mock exasperation, “Mailk Frickin’ Haynes? You think you’re a bad-ass now, because you’re on full scholarship?”

The players erupted. They responded the same way for Niumatalolo and Woodward, whose wife, Noelle, was introduced after Saturday’s scrimmage as one of the trainers. She pulled off her hat and glasses and said, “Mason Woodward, where you at? Hey, babe, you’re going on scholarship.”

Woodward, a Syracuse High School alumnus, had turned down a Southern Utah offer to walk on at Utah, with the hope of earning a scholarship. That happened, two days before the start of his senior academic year. “You guys that know me, you know how hard I work,” Woodward responded. “This is what I came here to do, so I appreciate it.”

With his Navy players standing behind him, Niumatalolo appeared on a video message to the Utes, concluding, “I just forgot one thing I was going to say: Ali’i, my son, congratulations on getting your scholarship.”

The impact of his scholarship struck Lanterman last week when he picked up his textbooks for the fall quarter. Cost: nothing. A scholarship also covers tuition, housing and food and about $4,000 annually to cover cost of attendance, as the NCAA allows.

That's a major development for Lanterman, who is scheduled to graduate in communications in December and now can afford to pursue a minor in sociology. He came to Utah with an Army ROTC scholarship, but said he lost that support after getting “D” in a class, stemming from having to miss a weekly lab due to football practice.

“Oh, it helps tremendously,” Lanterman said of the aid. “For lack of a better word, it was a struggle, for sure.”

Niumatalolo is a junior; the other three are seniors. None is expected to play a major role in games this season, perhaps contributing on special teams. They’re motivated to compete in practice and prove their value to the program. As Lanterman promised his coaches, “The hard work doesn’t stop.”

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utah offensive lineman Kyle Lanterman was placed on scholarship during spring practice.