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Spring football - Winter weather

New coach finally able to see team on practice field

It was cold and gray. It snowed enough at times that trainers had to clear off the hashmarks. The practice field was sloppy enough that it was hard to get a quick evaluation on talent and skills.

But it was the University of Utah's first spring practice session under coach Urban Meyer. "I could have stayed out there for 10 hours," said Meyer, who has longed for this hands-on opportunity with his new team since mid-December.

So no matter the weather, it was a good afternoon for Meyer.

"I love it. I love the snow. I love the practice fields. I love the mountains in the background. I love the Olympic torch in the stadium. And I like seeing a bunch of red and white jerseys running around with a good attitude.

"That's why you coach. You don't coach to go talk to your academic person about who's going to class and who's going to donate what money. You coach to be with your players," Meyer said.

The order for the day was mostly very basic — to teach players how to crisply break the huddle, to sprint to the line, to sprint back to the huddle.

To waste no time.

"I think they picked it up fairly well. It looks different, but there's a lot of similarities to our run game (and the one) that was here before. We run a lot of the same plays. It's just different looks, so there's some carryover. Plays that were carryover looked a little better than the ones that were brand new," Meyer observed.

Meyer's practices are lively. "More uptempo. We're running a lot more plays. It's more strict, as far as team rules, discipline, running on and off the field, everything," said junior receiver Paris Warren, who sat out last season after transferring from Oregon. At 6-foot-2, 212, he's penciled in as the starter at the "H" position.

Thursday's workout was louder than a lot of practices. "We just had a lot to unload. We had to get that stress off our chest," Warren said after a winter of intense weight training.

"They're pushing us hard. We're trying to be winners," said freshman receiver Steven Savoy, who looked good last spring but missed the season with August knee surgery.

"It's fun. There was a lot of energy out there today," said senior-to-be quarterback Lance Rice. Of Meyer, he noted, "He's intense. That guy is just all business. There's no BS with him. I think that he's going to do a lot of great things for this program, and I think he's exactly what we need at this point."

Meyer wants to see that energetic attitude last past opening day. "Practice No. 12, if we have the same enthusiasm and interest and intensity, there's a chance we could be a pretty good team," he said. "I was impressed with what they did today. We've just got to keep doing it. That's the coach's job, to keep that tempo going."

Quarterback Brett Elliott, who started the second half of 2002, found things to be "a lot more serious, but college football practice is college football practice. Maybe a little more uptempo, but it's the same 7-on-7, D-line, O-line drills.

Rice, Elliott and sophomore-to-be Alex Smith are vying to start, but Meyer didn't say much about seeing them in action for the first time.

"Yeah, to make an evaluation of our quarterbacks, let's make it 30 degrees, let's get it muddy and let's snow on it," he said. "I don't want to say I'm impressed, but I was glad to see we have three competitive people. They're three guys that have played before, and I think they're three talented guys."

One of the biggest things for them in this spread offense is to learn to get rid of the ball. It was, "The main thing we had trouble with today," Elliott said. They must grip and throw almost as soon as it hits their hands in the shotgun set.

"That's the secret," Meyer said. "We have got to get rid of the ball." He noticed Smith being "so worried about his form; get rid of the ball," Meyer said.

"Receivers were probably a little better than I thought, even though it was also sloppy," the coach said. "But when I say, 'better than I thought,' I didn't think a lot of them, and there's not a whole lot of experience coming back. Good players and good coaches usually equate to improvement, and I'm counting on that because I think they're good kids and good coaches."

Warren likes the new offense. "Being a receiver, you can't ask for a better playbook than that. There's a lot more passes, so I like that," he said.

There are other, more subtle changes. For instance, the offense is wearing the red practice jerseys, and the defense is wearing the whites, opposite of the last 13 years.

And, at Meyer's practices, players sprint everywhere — except after dropped or over- or under-thrown balls. Under Ron McBride, the involved offensive player was to chase the ball and bring it back — to learn to value possession. Under Meyer, the player gets back to the huddle quickly, and a manager gets the ball. "That's our philosophy. I'd rather be getting another rep," said Meyer. It "is a good concept, to take care of the ball, but there's other ways to do that."

Anyone who wants to see Meyer's practices first-hand may come. Fans are welcome to spring ball, and the schedule can be found at UtahUtes.com. "We'd love to see them," Meyer said.


E-MAIL: lham@desnews.com