SALT LAKE CITY — After suffering three season-ending ACL injuries during his five years as a linebacker for the University of Arizona, Cody Ippolito never had the slightest doubt about continuing his football career.
“Oh no, man, I have to finish,” he said. “There’s one thing about me. I have this weird OCD, where I have to finish what I’m doing.”
So with another year of eligibility left, Ippolito looked north to the University of Utah, a school that had recruited him six years earlier, to pursue his football dream.
However, his dream hasn’t worked out quite the way he envisioned.
Instead of playing linebacker, he switched sides in midseason and has become a key component to the Utes’ goal-line offense as a fullback.
After some issues with their red-zone offense and goal-line offense in the first half of the season, the Utes installed a new package that included a fullback. The only problem was they didn’t have a fullback, a position that coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledges isn’t recruited much any more.
He had played the fullback position in high school, and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor had been hounding Ippolito for much of the fall to come over to the offense, especially since he wasn’t seeing much time on the field defensively. At 5-foot-10, 250 pounds, he was built like a prototype fullback and certainly wasn’t afraid of contact.
“Coach Taylor was on my butt about it for weeks — ‘just switch over, man’ — and I finally said, ‘yeah,’” he said.
For about three weeks, Ippolito would switch back and forth in practice between defense where he wore number 57 and offense, where he wore number 48.
“They gave me a little option at first, but as the offense started expanding, I said ‘let’s just go offense.’”
“He was a good linebacker, but wasn’t getting a ton of reps there, and we were looking for a fullback type,” said Whittingham. “Troy (Taylor) had a short-yardage package and we were looking for those type of bodies. Cody fit the bill as a fullback and I’ll be darned if he didn’t have a feel for the position and a natural instinct. And he caught the ball very well.”
It was just before the Oregon game that Ippolito made the switch for good, and he has been wearing only number 48 ever since.
Mostly, Ippolito has lined up behind the quarterback, where he has been the big body to help open holes for Zack Moss, who has scored six touchdowns in the last four games, including three from inside the three. Then against UCLA, Ippolito got the thrill of his football life when he caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Huntley in the Utes’ 48-17 victory.
“That was the best experience ever,” he said. “I hadn’t scored since high school and scoring in college is way different than scoring in high school. That was awesome.”
The TD came with a play-action pass in the flat where Ippolito sneaked out of the backfield and stopped just beyond the goal-line.
“I told Tyler before the play, ‘you gotta throw the ball no matter what,’” Ippolito said. “I said I need this touchdown, and he threw it.”
Ippolito had been a starting linebacker for much of his career in Tucson, getting 80 tackles over parts of the three seasons he was healthy. He had torn his right ACL twice, causing him to miss the 2012 and 2014 seasons, and then in the seventh game of the 2016 season, it happened again, only this time to his left ACL, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, of all places, in a game against Utah.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” he said. “It was right there in Rice-Eccles on the Pac-12 symbol. I was like, ‘oh no, not again.’ When you feel that pain again and that little popping, you automatically know. I came to the sideline and said, ‘I think I just tore my ACL again.’
Ippolito was eligible to go to another school as a graduate transfer and chose Utah, a school he had actually committed to after a visit in 2011, before he changed his mind and decided to stay closer to his Paradise Valley home in Arizona. He’s been happy with the choice to come to Utah.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “The vibe here is great and the team camaraderie is what sticks out to me the most, everyone getting along with each other.”
Ippolito hooked up with receiver Darren Carrington as a roommate since the two knew each other from a few years ago and were both new to the program. Carrington calls his roomie “funny” and “very confident” and takes some of the credit for his switch to offense.
“I told him to come make a living over there at fullback,” Carrington said with a smile.
Ippolito is looking forward to the Utes’ bowl game on Dec. 26 against West Virginia.
“I just want to have fun and win this game,” he said.
He also wants one more chance at the end zone.
“I need another one,” he said. “I told coach Taylor I need one more before I go. One last hurrah.”