SALT LAKE CITY — For the past few years, spring meant returning to the baseball diamond for Wallace Gonzalez.
It’s where he’d regain the form needed before heading into a long, tedious 142-game season in the Houston Astros organization.
Not this year.
Instead, the Utah tight end is finishing up a new spring regimen that will end after the University of Utah's Red/White scrimmage on Saturday. This is a completely different experience that somehow has more hits than in baseball.
“It’s a lot more taxing physically,” Gonzalez said, while taking a second to wipe the sweat off his forehead after finishing a post-practice drill. “Baseball is an everyday grind; football is something new every day.”
Gonzalez joined the Utes heading into fall camp last season after ending a baseball career that began when the Astros drafted him in the 29th round of the 2011 MLB Player Entry draft. He was a three-star wide receiver recruit before that.
Now listed at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he’s almost 50 pounds heavier than he was in high school. The Utah coaches put the freshman in as a tight end in fall camp, then moved him to defensive end before switching him back to tight end in this year's spring camp.
Despite the back-and-forth switching, he said he’s learned much from the experience.
“Tight end is a little weird to me just because in high school I was always a wide out,” Gonzalez said. “Just playing on the line where the guys are a lot heavier is a little different for me, but I think I’m learning a lot. I think I can contribute a lot this year.
“Just going to the defensive side of the ball kind of gave me insight to what (the defense) is thinking and what their objectives are on every play. I think that’s helped out just with the blocking and stuff as a tight end now. So it’s helped out a lot.”
It also helps that Utah’s new tight ends coach, Lewis Powell, shares a similar experience. Powell played on the Utes’ defensive line from 2000 to 2003 and coached the defensive line while at Hawaii. At the professional level he experienced playing on an offensive line.
“It’s not totally new for me and it’s not totally new for (Gonzalez) ... because he played receiver in high school,” Powell said. “Him being a receiver is probably something natural to him, but he’s gained some weight and he’s gotten bigger … He’s doing pretty good. He’s still a freshman and he’s still a little bit raw, but he has a lot of ability and it’s just going to take time and repetition for him to get better.
“His ceiling is really high and I think as time goes, he’s going to get better and better and I’m excited for his growth.”
Having been out of the game for some time and being a freshman, Gonzalez understands the process ahead of him. He's not listed on the two-deep depth chart which means he stands somewhere behind senior Evan Moeai and junior Siale Fakailoatonga.
It’s not much different from his time in baseball.
That’s where the experience of a 142-game grind comes into play.
Gonzalez said he learned through his brief minor league career that he couldn’t wrap his head around one bad at-bat or one bad game in a season. In short, it’s the old cliche of dealing with a marathon, not a sprint.
“I think that’s helped mindset-wise,” he said. “It’s helped me stay positive and stay on the right track.”
Powell has also noticed that mindset from the freshman.
Even though he’s raw in many ways as a tight end, Powell said Gonzalez is eager to improve and to learn how he can perfect his craft at the position.
“He’s a little bit more mature. He knows what he wants,” Powell said. “He loves the grind. He takes on the hard work because of how mature he is. Some kids will fold, but he’s been good. He’s been taking on the work I’ve been giving him and not only me, but all the work he gets in school and all the work he gets in the weightroom and from all the other coaches."
There is one other big difference between spring training for baseball and spring camp that excites Gonzalez.
Spring training is the start of a summer chock-full of games as the minor league season runs into early September. Spring camp, which ends this week, leads to a few months away from football before players don pads in fall camp, which will start in August.
It’s a chance to gear up for an experience that he jokingly said “kicked his butt” last year.
He’s also happy that his future will likely be less up in the air at the end of spring camp than it was at the end of any baseball spring training. However, that experience has prepared him well for his new challenge.
“I think spring training is more nerve-wracking because you don’t know if you’re going to get released, or if you’re going to break with the team, or stay for extended spring training,” he said. “For me, the move back to tight end has kind ... learning on the fly. I hold myself to a high standard, so it’s been kind of frustrating at times, but you just have to stick with it and fight through it.”