March 4, 2010

Spring Guide to the Pass Catchers

The Utes lose three starters at receiver and must replace David Reed, who turned in one of the most productive seasons ever for a Utah receiver. Due to the style of offense, the Utes are returning four players that saw playing time at the position in 2009, and will make more use of the forgotten tight end position. The Utes are also counting on a few players that redshirted in 2009 to step up and take their place in the rotation. "We have some other good guys that we need to emerge," receivers coach Aaron Roderick said. "We'll have to play our tight ends and we have some good tight ends so I think you'll sometimes see that tight end maybe take the place of one of those four receivers."

Though much has been made out of tight end Kendrick Moeai's two touchdown bowl game, Roderick says incorporating the tight end position into the passing game is as simple as plugging one in to replace a receiver. "The position Bradon Godfrey played was really tight end, he was the tight end, we just played it with a receiver," Roderick said. "If one or two of those tight ends can do those things then you will see a tight end at that position where a guy like Bradon or John Peel played in the past. Like for example in the bowl game, the balls that Kendrick Moeai caught in the bowl game those were the same throws you used to see Bradon catch two years ago. We can line up with anyone there, it is just whoever can get it done, whether it is a tight end or a little guy like Jereme Brooks."

"He's an athletic guy, but he's got to get a little bit bigger and stronger," tight end coach Dave Schramm said of Moeai. "He obviously showed his athleticism in the bowl game." The former high school receiver is still growing into the position but has the ability to be a threat in the passing game.

Brad Clifford also returns for the Utes, though he has not had much of a chance to show what he can do on the field. The former walk-on receiver has bulked up to 250 pounds and knows the offense, he just has to go out there and make plays. "He's still got to get better in his blocking," Schramm said.

The Utes also get Westlee Tonga back from his LDS mission in time for spring. Tonga is new to the program as he left for his mission before enrolling, so he has a lot to learn on and off the field. "Any time you're two years away from playing it takes time," Schramm said. "You're going to be going up against guys that have been lifting weights and running the whole time you've been away. The tendency is for those guys to get a little frustrated so they have to be patient and kind of let it play out." Tonga is a good athlete but enters spring as a complete unknown and will be a guy to watch.

As for the receivers, the Utes are not looking to replace Reed with any one guy, but expect several receivers to step up, starting with senior-to-be Jereme Brooks. Brooks really came on strong over the last half of 2009 and looks to improve on his 56 catches, 696 yards, and team-leading seven receiving touchdowns. Brooks is also expected to step up and take on a leadership role on the team. "Jereme's a really good player," Roderick said. "He plays a lot bigger than he is, he has great range even though he's a small guy, he just goes and gets it. He has more range than a guy that's 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2. He's exciting with the ball and is a super smart player, the guy is lights-out intelligent. He reminds me of Brian Johnson in terms of understanding what we're doing. He understands the whole offense, he gets it, so we can move him around and line him up and use him in a lot of different ways, he can handle it all. I expect him to be an all-conference player next year."

Joining Brooks as a starter at receiver will be sophomore Luke Matthews. Matthews battled injuries all year in 2009 that kept him from being as explosive as he can be, catching just nine passes all year. Matthews did show his athletic ability as a punt returner as he had a team-best 10.1 yard average per return. "I love Luke, I want more guys like Luke. I think Luke was one of the most underrated guys on our team last year. He battled through a couple of pretty serious injuries that nobody even knew he had because he never missed a day," Roderick said. "The guy only has one speed and he's an unbelievable kid; great character, great work ethic, he's one of the best athletes on the team. He's fast and big and strong. I'm expecting big things from him." Matthews needs to show that he is fully recovered from his ankle injuries and regain the speed and explosiveness that has made him a promising prospect.

Shaky Smithson had an inconsistent year after transferring from East Los Angeles Junior College. The versatile athlete never had the chance to become comfortable in the offense as he was shuffled between positions due to injuries at running back. Smithson will have a big hurdle to jump, as it appears he will miss the spring recovering from shoulder surgery. "It was unfair to the guy being a first year player to have to learn so many different positions. It was not ideal," Roderick said. "We had issues with running back depth so Shaky was jumping all over the place and also he battled some injuries last year so he never really got a chance to get comfortable anywhere. I think everybody saw moments of greatness and he's got lots of ability but he never really owned a position. This year we'll get him settled in somewhere; he's still going to move around but he'll have a year under his belt. As long as he can get healthy he'll be good."

DeVonte Christopher is now entering his second full season of playing receiver after coming to Utah as a quarterback. The transition to being a full time receiver has not been easy for Christopher and he needs to show some consistency this spring. "He had his moments where he looked like a player and had some times where he struggled," Roderick said. "He's not the fastest guy in the world but he's fast enough and he has good size and huge hands. He's got probably the biggest hands on the whole football team, his hands are enormous. He's got decent speed, good size, and he's getting stronger and I think he's going to be a good player if he just gets tougher and more consistent."

If there is one player to watch at receiver in the spring, it would be redshirt freshman Sean Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald returned from his LDS mission and spent last fall on the scout teams getting back into playing shape. Fitzgerald reminds Roderick of Godfrey with his size and ability to make tough catches in traffic. With a strong spring Fitzgerald could make a serious push for playing time and even a starting role with Brooks and Matthews. "He's a big target and he has unbelievable hands; he's got as good of hands as we've had since I have been here," Roderick said. "He has a knack for finding the ball and coming down with it in tight spaces. He's not afraid to get hit, he's a very tough kid who will go over the middle and take hits and compete for the ball. He's a good athlete with a good vertical jump and good balance. He's 6-foot-3 and a little over 200 pounds so he's almost a tight end size wise. He's still young and has a lot to prove but he has a chance to be a good player."

Jamal Smith also has a chance to earn playing time, though the redshirt freshman from California needs to show improvement in all areas. Smith has the physical ability to be a solid receiver, he just needs to show he can be consistent. That consistency is the one thing Roderick will be looking for out of the group of pass catchers in the spring.

"I want to see consistency from the group as a whole. Be the same guy every day, you can't be up-and-down. We can't wait to develop it by midseason," Roderick said. "That's what I'm looking for, no peaks and valleys. I think we can be a good group. We don't have a David Reed this year so we'll have to find ways to compensate for that. We'll be different but I think that we can be as or more productive than we were a year ago because the quarterback position will be more consistent as well. But we've got some other things that we're going to do well, we've got skills we haven't seen yet that will so in other ways, in wrinkles that will be exciting."

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