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Wanting advice on how to play the free safety position, Utah sophomore Eric Rowe reached out to former Ute Robert Johnson for some help.

Johnson, drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2010, gave some insight into how to read the quarterback, when to react, when to hold ground and so forth.

But more than anything, Rowe was advised to just play his game.

Luckily, he has plenty of it.

Rowe, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore out of Spring, Texas, is expected to be not only a starter for the Utes at free safety, but also a game changer.

While there is a tendency for Rowe to get lost in the preseason hype behind his bigger, more publicized teammates such as Star Lotulelei, Trevor Reilly and the Kruger brothers, it's Rowe who could become one of the top impact defensive players for the Utes.

Whether it is breaking up a pass from Travis Wilson, showing off his 38-inch vertical leap to intercept Jordan Wynn or just generally harassing Utah's receivers, Rowe has been one of the standouts of Utah's camp.

"He has done some good things for us," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He is a guy who had a very good year last year, and we expect even bigger things this year."

Rowe is considered one of the typical Utah recruiting finds. A solid player as a junior, Rowe nevertheless wasn't one of the heralded players who caught the early attention of Texas schools.

Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley, a former Ute who knows first-hand what it takes to play the position at the U., saw in Rowe all the promising signs of becoming a big-time player.

"He had an amazing highlight film," Scalley said. "He had the speed and athleticism and maneuvers around the field like Robert Johnson did. It was a no-brainer ... to go after him."

By the end of his freshman year, Rowe proved Scalley's assessment of him was dead-on.

He started all 13 games as a freshman and ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with nine pass breakups and fourth on Utah's team with 69 tackles.

By the end of the season, the unassuming player out of Texas was recognized as one of the best college rookies in the country by several publications. His success didn't surprise the Utes, but it did catch Rowe off guard.

"I try not to listen to it all," he said of the high praise headed his way. "I want to stay humble. Last year I didn't play bad, but All-American status? I'm not sure about that."

Wanting to have an even better season in 2012, Rowe said he worked hard in the summer to add weight and study Pac-12 offenses.

"My mental focus is better, and I can recognize the formations in the Pac-12 a lot more," he said. "I need to keep working, but I feel like I can get better."

So far he has, say his coaches and teammates. During the Utes' first scrimmage, Rowe made a leaping pass breakup of a pass from Wynn intended for Dres Anderson.

While the breakup got the better of Wynn, the quarterback couldn't help but appreciate Rowe's abilities.

"He is so fast, and he has a lot of range," he said. "He is a smart guy, and he knows how to play offenses. He makes all of us [quarterbacks] good because I think we go up against some of the best safeties in the conference on our team."

That a sophomore is excelling at safety for the Utes — much less excelling in the Pac-12 — is an achievement in itself.

The Utes consider the position one of the most demanding on the defense.

"He has to play a tough position for us in the way we play, man, but he is comfortable in it," Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. "He is a true eraser on defense. If the running back pops through the line of scrimmage, he has to secure the tackle for minimum gain and he has to play some strong safety. There is a lot of responsibility."

So far, Rowe is up to the task.

"I feel a lot stronger than I did last year," he said. "I just want to keep improving." —

Utah's depth chart at safety

Free Safety

Eric Rowe, 6-1, 205, So. • Nine pass breakups, ranked second on the team

Terrell Reese, 6-0, 205, So. • Signed as a receiver out of high school

Tyron Morris-Edwards, 6-1, 200, So. • Former walk-on played in four games in 2011

Strong Safety

Quade Chappuis, 5-11, 198, Jr. • Starting at least until Brian Blechen returns from 3-game suspension

Terrell Reese, 6-0, 205, So. • Played in seven games, mostly on special teams

Michael Walker, 5-9, 190, Jr. • Runs a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash —

Eric Rowe file

Year • Sophomore

Height/weight • 6-1, 205

Hometown • Spring, Texas

Of note • First-team Freshman All-American by the Football Writer's Association of America, … Started all 13 games as a freshman. … Runs a 4.48 40. … Team's fourth-leading tackler, with 69 tackles.