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Eric Weddle: Former Ute all-American was ‘a punk freshman’

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People didn’t like me because I didn’t take any garbage. A lot of guys thought I’d bow down to them, but I wasn’t like that. I was just trying to play football and do my thing. I wanted to be the best, and I was going to outplay anyone out there. I’ve always been that way. – Eric Weddle, former Ute and current NFL safety

Editor's note: This is the first of five excerpts from the recently released book, "No Excuses, No Regrets: The Eric Weddle Story," which follows the former Utah Ute's journey to becoming a pro bowl safety with the NFL's San Diego Chargers. "No Excuses, No Regrets," written by Deseret News journalist Trent Toone, is available at Deseret Book.

When former Utah coach Urban Meyer announced his 2003 recruiting class, the fanfare centered on heralded recruits such as Thomas Huff, Tony Castaldi and local product Kyle Brady.

Barely mentioned on signing day in February 2003 was the 5-foot-11, 185-pound defensive back from Alta Loma, Calif. Alphabetical order placed Eric Weddle’s name at the bottom of Utah’s recruiting list. With his confident grin and slicked-back black hair, some of his teammates teased the Southern California recruit by calling him a pretty boy who belonged on the cast of "Beverly Hills 90210."

But Weddle was all business.

From the moment he stepped on campus, Eric was prepared to do whatever was necessary to earn a starting spot on the defense. He also carried a huge chip on his shoulder: he wanted every school to regret the day it had passed on him (Utah was the only school to offer Weddle a scholarship). He drew inspiration from a quote by former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who, during Baltimore’s playoff run to Super Bowl XXXV, had told Sports Illustrated: "When you go in the lion’s den, you don’t tippy toe in — you carry a spear, you go in screaming like a banshee, you kick whatever doors in. ... If you go in any other way you’re gonna lose."

"My mindset was that I wasn’t trying to make friends," Weddle explained. "People didn’t like me because I didn’t take any garbage. A lot of guys thought I’d bow down to them, but I wasn’t like that. I was just trying to play football and do my thing. I wanted to be the best, and I was going to outplay anyone out there. I’ve always been that way."

It didn’t take long for Eric to make his presence known. As fall camp got under way, the energetic freshman attacked each drill with dramatic fury, even when the players were instructed to go half-speed. In team meetings, Eric was not afraid to speak up by asking questions or providing answers to questions posed by coaches. "Eric prided himself in being first," said Morgan Scalley, a teammate who became a close friend.

Like most incoming freshmen, Eric started out at the bottom of the depth chart. Scalley, a junior, was the starter at free safety, and senior Dave Revill was the strong safety. Senior Anthony White and junior Kawika Casco were listed second at each respective position. As a senior, Revill took pride in speaking up at team meetings, especially when the questions came from safety coach Bill Busch. When the upstart underclassman Weddle began beating him to the punch, Revill began to ask, "Who is this punk freshman? Who does he think he is?"

The closest thing to a confrontation took place on a blistering August afternoon during two-a-days on the practice field. The safeties had gathered for what was supposed to be a light, low-contact drill focused on improving fundamental tackling technique. Players wore helmets and dressed in practice jerseys, shorts and cleats. Revill took charge by demonstrating the drill. One player was the running back with the ball and the other guy was the safety. They were supposed to jog toward each other and the safety’s job was to wrap up the ball carrier and go to the end of the line. Simple enough.

"It was a mellow little warm-up. All of us who had been there forever knew what it was about," Revill recalled with a tinge of irritation in his voice. "Eric thought it was full speed, and he started juking people. He was going all-out on everybody like he was Rudy [Ruettiger]."

On his first rep, Eric sidestepped Scalley. To save face, Scalley then did the same thing to Revill, "so Morgan wouldn’t look bad," Revill said. "Everybody was like, 'Hey this is warm-ups, freshman. Stop. Chill. Simmer down.'" When Eric faked his way past another teammate, Revill was finally fed up. "I said screw that, give me the ball, and I juked him."

Eric respectfully refused to back down. "If someone talked down to me, gave me guff, gave me any 'I am a senior and this is my team' garbage, I wouldn’t stand for it," Eric said. "If we had to fight or yell, I was going to fight and yell. I was not going to let them push me around. My whole focus was to play ball and start."

Jay Hill, a defensive graduate assistant at the time, described Eric the freshman this way: "He was extremely confident. ... He came across as a young, cocky, California egotistical kid, and a lot of older teammates were turned off by it. But he quickly earned people’s respect."

Eric impressed the coaches, especially when it came to understanding the Xs and Os. It had taken Revill most of his college career to learn Utah’s complicated defensive schemes. He said Eric comprehended the defense before he came to Utah.

"He was so knowledgeable," Revill said. "He knew the packages and everything else. I knew he would start by the middle of the season. It was unbelievable how much knowledge he had about the game."

"It was apparent from day one," said Kyle Whittingham, then Utah’s defensive coordinator. "He was head and shoulders above everyone else in that class in our agility tests and practices. He was the best safety, best wide receiver, the best everything."

Debbie Weddle, Eric’s mother, dreamed her son might start one college game by the end of his senior year. Weddle made that first start against Colorado State in the third game of his freshman season.

By the end of the season, Weddle had helped the Utes to a win in the Liberty Bowl and a Mountain West Conference title. He was also named a freshman all-American. His first year of college football may have surprised some, but his best years were yet to come.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone