Alex Smith has proven to be quite durable. Last season, Utah's starting quarterback avoided injury while throwing 266 passes and running the ball 149 times.

His ability to steer clear of trouble meant little or no playing time for backups Brett Elliott and Lance Rice — veteran quarterbacks and former starters.

A year later, it's a safety net the Utes no longer have.

Rice has graduated and Elliott opted to transfer, leaving Smith as the only quarterback in the program with Division I experience.

For obvious reasons, Utah coach Urban Meyer isn't taking any chances with Smith's health in spring practices.

"We're going to put another (color of) jersey on him. Notice our quarterbacks coach (Dan Mullen) is carrying a whistle he never carried before. His job is to blow that whistle if anybody gets within a couple of yards of him," Meyer said. "Alex, he did well last year, but I think we've got a chance to be a throwing team this year, so he's got a lot of work to do."

That prospect has Smith and the Ute receivers excited. They're running more routes as Meyer's spread offense plans to take flight in its second season.

"To be able to throw the ball involves timing, it involves protection and it involves good receivers," Meyer said. "We should be better in all three of those."

The key, he added, is having an advanced starting quarterback like Smith and proven receivers like Paris Warren, Steve Savoy and Travis LaTendresse, who combined for 148 catches in 2003, back in the fold. Unlike a year ago, Meyer said the Utes aren't starting below ground zero.

"Alex has a year of experience under his belt. He's going to be a lot better passer," Mullen predicted. "A majority of our receivers all return this year, so when our ones are in there, our pass-game flexibility is really increased."

Smith, who completed 173 passes in 2003 and was only intercepted three times, is eager to air things out — Utah ran the ball 62 percent of the time a year ago.

"Absolutely. I think in certain parts of our season we showed it just a little bit, but the timing as far as knowing people and getting comfortable takes a long time," Smith said. "It will only get better. I think it's something that will make us much more efficient — knowing my guys and knowing the little things like what they're going to do on certain routes. It makes a difference."

The learning process, however, is far from complete. The Utes have watched plenty of film to see what they did wrong and what they did well last season. They're building on it, making adjustments and added new wrinkles.

"I think the biggest thing is it's hard to get really good in 15 practices. What it's going to take, especially on my part, is to get everybody going during the summer," Smith explained. "We can't be lazy when we work out. We have to be focused. If we do work hard this summer, I think it'll definitely pay off."

Savoy, Utah's primary deep threat, said it's time for the receivers to shine and help put more points on the board. Roles have been defined, and the coaching staff has a better grasp on what type of talent is in the program as the offense is opened up.

"We should have a pretty good year. Alex is looking real comfortable back there in the pocket," Savoy said. "It should be a breakout year for the receivers."

It may take more than that, though, for Utah's offense to click. Warren, who broke the program's single-season receptions record with 76 catches a year ago, acknowledges depth and building things up require additional support.

"It all starts from the running game. We've got Marty (Johnson) back, hopefully, and Mike Liti, and other backs. Without them the passing game is nothing," Warren said. "As long as we establish the run, the passing game will be there."

With junior college All-American Quinton Ganther expected to solidify the tailback ranks come fall, the biggest concern for Utah's backfield may be finding a backup quarterback in the event Smith gets injured.

Texas prep star Brian Johnson and Timpanogos quarterback Paul Kruger will be on campus this fall, while former Dixie State signal caller Adam Madsen and junior Brigham Au are competing for No. 2 duties in spring ball.

"We have a backup plan. A couple of young men are battling back there and can hopefully give us a little bit of depth," said Meyer, who hinted that another junior college quarterback may be added to the mix in the next couple of weeks.

"There's some plans. It's not the perfect situation, but did we have a plan for (Brandon) Warfield when he went down and we didn't have a tailback or Mike Liti?" he added. "One thing about this team. If you're hard on them and train them well enough, someone will step up and help us win a game."

For now, it's all about business. Utah has 12 spring practices remaining, including three scrimmages.

"I'm pretty confident with the backups we have. There's just a lot more work that needs to be done as far as the quarterbacks and the receivers — all of us," Warren said. "We all need more work. In due time, it'll all come together."

EXTRA POINTS: The Utes are scheduled to have their first full-contact practice of the spring today at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The public is invited to attend the 10:30 a.m. workout . . . The first scrimmage is set for April 3 . . . Friday's practice was moved to the stadium because of the heavy rains that fell earlier in the day.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com