Utes' 5-foot-7 walk-on punt returner earned a role with effort, fearlessness.
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The easiest way to spot Utah receiver Griff McNabb at football practice is to wait until everyone else leaves. Then, the 5-foot-7 McNabb isn't lost among his bigger teammates. Normally he is one of the few remaining on the field working through extra receiving drills while his teammates call it a day and head to the locker room.
The willingness to put in extra time has helped McNabb break into a lineup of receivers that features flashier, lankier and more credentialed players.
Of course, the fact that his courage is bigger than his stature helps too.
McNabb, a sophomore from Pocatello, Idaho, has become the Utes' go-to guy on punt returns after freshman Charles Henderson was lost for the season with a knee injury.
He has 12 punt returns for 56 yards, ranking sixth in the Pac-12.
Along with more playing time, McNabb is earning the respect of his teammates for his efforts.
"Griff is a good dude," lineman John Cullen said. "I've never seen him fair catch a punt unless Coach Whittingham is screaming at him to. He is a little guy out there, but he is one of those receivers you like to have on your team."
McNabb has just two catches for 13 yards this year, hardly a statistic that would get him noticed. However, he is earning more and more time on the field as the Utes continue to struggle with a lack of playmakers.
From DeVonte Christopher to Dexter Ransom to Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson and others, the Utes thought they were filled with talent to bust big plays. But outside of Christopher and Anderson, who are tied leading the team with three touchdowns apiece, the Utes have had little production.
Once buried on the depth chart, McNabb has kept his mouth shut and let his play do the talking for him.
"It's just more motivation for me," he said of being low on the depth chart earlier in the year. "I wanted to show I deserved it."
McNabb's stock has risen, both in the receiving corps and on special teams, because he is such a steady player for the Utes, coach Kyle Whittingham said. Right now, in an unpredictable year, that steadiness is just what the Utes need.
"You know what you are going to get with McNabb," Whittingham said. "He is going to line up correctly. He is going to give you a precise running route and he catches what is thrown to him. The best way to describe him is a reliable, blue-collar player."
The Utes wouldn't have his services if Whittingham hadn't obliged a former teammate of a favor.
McNabb earned first-team all-state honors as a senior at Highland H.S. in Pocatello, Idaho, and was the Region Offensive Player of the Year.
Despite the accolades, McNabb didn't receive any scholarship offers, as teams overlooked the short receiver.
Hoping his son would get a chance somewhere, McNabb's father, Bill, called Whittingham, his former teammate at BYU, and asked if Griff could walk on with the Utes.
The Utes gave McNabb a spot but didn't make him any promises that he would play.
Turns out, McNabb didn't need any more favors.
"Even in high school I was tiny, so I've always had to work hard," McNabb said. "I've always tried to work hard every day and make the best of my opportunities. Coach [Aaron] Roderick says don't count your reps, make your reps count, and that is what I try to do."
Getting more time on the field as a receiver is one thing, but the way McNabb has shown a willingness to hold ground during punt returns is another thing. Bigger receivers have been too skittish to stand firm in a vulnerable position and field punts with guys weighing more than 200 pounds running full force at them.
But the 166-pound McNabb, who weighs less than what even a punter could bench press, doesn't yield.
"All I think about is catching the ball and nothing else," McNabb said. "I can't worry about if it's safe or not or complain, I just want us to get more wins."
Spoken like the Eagle Scout that he is, McNabb gives the Utes a steady effort at a time when they need it most.
"It's crucial to have guys like him who you can depend on," Whittingham said. "Especially when it comes to catching punts and securing the ball, we need that."
Griff McNabb file
• 5-foot-7, 166 pound sophomore.
From • Pocatello, Idaho
Notable • Played in eight games as a freshman, with two catches for eight yards and a touchdown and returned three punts for 22 yards. ... Father, Bill, played with Utah coach Kyle Whittingham at BYU. ... McNabb is a parks, recreation and tourism major.
Walk-ons who stuck
McNabb isn't the only walk-on making an impact this year. Here are a few others:
Shawn Asiata • Brother of former Ute Matt Asiata, the 6-foot, 253-pound senior is one of the Utes' best blocking backs.
Dave Fagergren • Backup linebacker seeing more playing time due to injuries.
Coleman Petersen • Earned the place-kicking role over Nick Marsh and is 11-for-13.
Tauni Vakapuna • Has played in six games with 17 carries and 27 yards on the season.
Karl Williams • Sophomore has started one game at fullback.
Utah at Arizona
P Saturday, 5 p.m.
TV • KJZZ