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Will changes pay dividends for U.?

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Change can be unpleasant.

Football, on the field, can be an unpleasant game, with large men hurting each other.

Utah has made the changes.

When Utah State visits Rice-Eccles Stadium today at 6 p.m. in the season opener for both teams, Utah will find out a lot about whether the changes it made in the off-season will make for a pleasant season — or just more of the same.

The opener follows a 4-7 2000 season when Utah was supposed to be the class of the Mountain West Conference but failed miserably, thanks mainly to injuries, a stagnant offense and poor kicking.

That forced coach Ron McBride to nudge friends out the door, fire family and lose one assistant to the NFL Buffalo Bills. Gone are offensive coordinator Tommy Lee, special teams coach Sean McNabb, linebacker coach Fred Whittingham — father of defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham — and receivers coach Fred Graves.

The result is a new offensive coordinator (Craig Ver Steeg), new running backs/receivers coach (Vincent White), new special-teams coach (Gary Andersen, who retains his defensive-line position as well) and new safeties coach (Bill Busch). With them, they've brought an entirely new two-back offense that throws to backs and tight ends as well as receivers and a new attitude on special teams. Kickers and other specialists now must lift weights and run like other players in hopes they'll feel and be treated more like teammates.

Utah has spanking-new men at punt return, kicker, punter, long snapper and in the defensive backfield and will use some new players at receiver.

From this turmoil, McBride and Ute fans hope, will rise a competitive team.

And from this turmoil, Utah State coach Mick Dennehy has found it hard to prepare his club for one of its most-hated rivals. "I am obviously concerned with not knowing exactly what they're doing," he said. His staff looked at film of the Illinois offense because Ver Steeg coached there last year.

"I'm more concerned with special teams. McNabb was there 100 years," Dennehy added. He has little information on Andersen's tendencies.

Utah sophomore starting quarterback Lance Rice, who played 3 1/2 games last season, says Dennehy's Illini research won't do him much good. "They won't know what's coming at them. We'll run a lot of new things than what coach Ver Steeg did at Illinois."

Utah's defense, best in the Mountain West last season, has more idea of what Utah State will do on offense, but stopping third-team All-American running back Emmett White (1,322 yards) and quarterback Jose Fuentes (2,709 yards passing) may not be as easy as it was last year. Those two will focus on making the Utes pay for holding White to 43 yards and intercepting Fuentes three times in his second career start, a 35-14 Ute win in Logan.

"This is important to (USU), and it's always been that way since the start of time. It goes back to the (former coach) Bruce Snyder days, bitter hatred," observes McBride.

The Aggie offense, young last year, is maturing. "We've got a year more experience, we're bigger and more physical and hope we can slug it out with them. If we can, it's going to be a long day," said Dennehy.

Utah's big offensive line, most of which is back, "just kind of leaned on us" last year, Dennehy added, wearing the Ags down.

"Our guys are pretty cranky," Dennehy said. "We need to find out about ourselves."

That's even more critical for the new-look Utes. A win for the Aggies would kick off Dennehy's second year in fine style, but a loss for them wouldn't necessarily ruin the year. A Ute win in this 101-year-old series is pretty much expected — Utah is 68-28-4 against the Ags and has won eight of the last 10.

A Ute loss would revisit last year's season-long misery and lead to hysterics of starting 0-4 again, or worse. Utah's next three games are at seventh-ranked Oregon, at Air Force and at Indiana. A Ute loss would indicate that all of McBride's changes haven't been enough.

The Utes think they are full of promise. Offensive players gush about the variety in Ver Steeg's scheme, about his energetic approach and attention to detail. Newcomers Devin Houston and Paris Jackson shore up the receiving corps, and Marty Johnson has made it a three-halfback race. Defenders know the front seven is solid and rave about new free safety Antwoine Sanders, a perfect twin for strong safety Arnold Parker. There's talent, if youth, at cornerback.

Speedy veteran receiver Cliff Russell, who runs a 4.27 40, is considered recovered from a slight knee sprain that kept him out of most fall practices; he expects to start tonight, along with Josh Lyman. Senior fullback Thomas Fortune is "90 percent" back from a hamstring pull. He won't start, but it's possible he could see action. Don't be surprised if Utah uses halfbacks Adam Tate and Dameon Hunter, the announced starter, together in the backfield at times.

There are changes from earlier in the week on special teams, where battles have raged from the beginning of training camp. Freshman Morgan Scalley has moved past freshman Bo Nagahi as punt returner. Also, D'Shaun Crockett and Desmond Davis will return kickoffs. Nagahi had been a listed starter there.

Tonight, Utah will know if its changes are adequate.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com