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The Utah Utes could wind up using about a half-dozen freshmen this season, which would be not much different from last season. What could be different, however, is which ones see the playing time.
Coach Kyle Whittingham rattled off the names of several freshmen who had impressed him during the first three days of training camp Wednesday, and almost all of them play defense.
Cornerbacks Joe Dale and Justin Jones caught the coach's eye, he said, along with defensive linemen Pauli Latu and Zeke Wiley. The only offensive player Whittingham mentioned was Walter Watts IV, whose father played basketball for the Utes and was part of the 30-4 team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1991.
"Time will tell," Whittingham said. "It's still way too early to make any determination. Those are the guys who stand out in my mind, at least to this point."
Last season, the Utes used nine freshmen, either redshirt or true, and seven of them were offensive players. Offensive guard Robert Conley and receiver Brent Casteel turned into starters, along with cornerback Brice McCain. The others played either in reserve roles or on special teams.
Setting the pace
Having gone through their split-squad practices and their acclimation period, the Utes have put on the pads and are preparing for their first workout with the whole team together today in advance of the first scrimmage of the season this weekend.
And if there is one thing Whittingham has noticed, it's that his team is ahead of schedule.
"We're further ahead right now than we were last year at this time," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. Second year with the coaching staff, second year with the offensive system that was tweaked a little bit. . . . I'm very confident that I can say that we're further ahead right now than we were at this point last year."
The Utes pulled in their fifth oral commitment of the recruiting season when offensive guard Louis Finner of Plano West High School in Texas agreed to play for them next season.
A 6-foot-3, 290-pound senior, Finner will join five Texans already on the roster as the team has steadily increased its presence in the talent-rich state over the past five years or so. Whittingham said recently he would like to sign five or six Texans every recruiting season.
The kicking plan
Knowing that sophomore Louie Sakoda can both kick and punt adequately has kept the Utes from fretting too much about the loss of accurate starting kicker Dan Beardall.
"Our hopes are that someone will emerge and take either the punting or the place-kicking off his plate," Whittingham said. "If not . . . he's very capable of handling" kickoffs, place-kicking and punting.
However, Whittingham said he's wary of the "wear and tear" that much work would put on a kicker's leg over the course of the season, so he would prefer to split up the duties. Freshman Anthony Santella is the best bet to claim the punting job, Whittingham said, while sophomore Ben Vroman is the frontrunner for the kicking spot vacated by Beardall.