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Young Watts has Utah coaches’ attention

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Throughout his first week of college football practice, Utah offensive lineman Walter Watts IV is being watched closely.

Aside from a coaching staff eager to see how the newcomer performs, the 6-foot-2, 329-pound Californian is being observed by a familiar face on the sidelines. His dad, former Runnin' Ute basketball star Walter Watts III, is spending a few days helping his son assimilate.

The younger Watts said it's kind of like having two coaches around when he does drills and adjusts to college life.

"It's always a special deal to follow the footsteps of your father and be a legacy," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "That's something that most kids dream about."

It almost didn't happen, though.

Watts originally committed to UCLA after a stellar career at Los Banos High School in California. He eventually opted to go elsewhere and considered Utah and Colorado among other opportunities.

"When I told my dad I was coming to Utah, he was really excited," Watts said. "He didn't try to push me or anything to come here. He left it to me. I came here on my own."

The decision made his father happy.

"It feels great to know that he's somewhere that I know for sure he's going to be taken care of," said the elder Watts. "It's a family organization, so it's all good. I've been gone a long time, but the love is still here."

Fifteen years have passed since Watts was the second-leading scorer and rebounder on a Utah basketball team that went 30-4 and reached the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet 16."

Even though he returned to California, Watts maintained a fondness for Salt Lake City. He accompanied his son on a recruiting trip and plans to attend every football game this fall.

"It's real nice to be back home. I've always called this my home, and I love it," Watts said. "To have my son here . . . I'm just so happy to come back."

The community, he added, will ease the transition of his son's first time away from home.

"The people are real nice here and they take care of you. As long as you're a good kid — and he's a great kid — people are going to love him," Watts said. "They always took care of me and I never had any problems. He loved it out here when he took his visit."

Knowing how his father was treated played a big role in the 17-year-old's decision to sign with Utah.

"I loved how the people treated my dad," he said. "When he comes out here, they show love and all that. I really like that."

Ute fans, he continued, are real fans, and the younger Watts wanted to be part of it. There were other factors as well.

"This team is really going on the upscale right now," he said. "We should get the Mountain West Conference championship. With our mindset, we're a winning team."

After missing his senior season in high school with a broken fibula and an associated ankle injury, Watts said he's working twice as hard to get back in shape.

"I haven't hit anybody in about a year now," Watts said. "So it's building up and I can't wait."

The intensity of college football, he remarked, is much greater than that in high school ball. It's a change Watts welcomes. He loves it and is determined to thrive in it.

"I'm going to work as hard as I can to be on the starting squad," said Watts.

Offensive line coach Charlie Dickey acknowledges that Watts has a lot of potential.

"He looks like he's got good feet. He plays with good balance and has a good base," Dickey said. "I like the way he moves and I like the way he tries to think out there."

Until practice with pads begins on Friday, though, it's hard to determine just how well Watts will initially adjust to the rigors of collegiate athletics.

Dad knows it and plans to stick around through Saturday's scrimmage to provide support, if needed.

"I've got to be here when they start hitting so I can be in his mind," Watts said with a grin.

The prospect of having his son play his first game at UCLA also makes Dad smile.

"That's going to be a real special one," Watts said. "I hope he goes out there and knocks them down."

U. ticket sales record

With one month remaining before its home football opener against Northern Arizona, the University of Utah has already set a new school record for season ticket sales. As of Monday, sales had reached 22,050 — surpassing the old record of 21,540 set last year.

Individual tickets for all home games, including the BYU game on Nov. 25, go on sale Aug. 14 at 10 a.m.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com