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Doug Robinson: Utah’s Britain Covey proof that speedy, undersized athletes can thrive in modern era

SHARE Doug Robinson: Utah’s Britain Covey proof that speedy, undersized athletes can thrive in modern era

SALT LAKE CITY — Britain Covey might be one of the best young collegiate receivers in the country, if also the most unlikely. He was Utah’s best playmaker two years ago before serving an LDS Church mission. Now he’s back and the Utes are counting on him to help cure their chronically underperforming offense.

But in another era, would he have had such an opportunity to display his football skills? Covey is listed as 5-foot-8, and that might be generous. His official weight is 170 pounds. Would he have thrived when offenses ran tight formations and built their attack with brawn and the run game instead of finesse? Would coaches have dismissed him at first glance?

Maybe, but not anymore. As Covey puts it, “I came along at the perfect time.”

The proliferation of the spread offense and variations on the theme the last 15 years has created opportunities for undersized players at every level, from Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow to the New England Patriots receiving corps.

“The name of the offense tells the story,” says Covey.

It spreads players across the field, with four- and five-wide formations and 3-foot splits for the linemen. This opens more space on the field, which creates a need for more speed, which creates a role for smaller players on both sides of the ball — quicker backs and receivers who are difficult to cover in the open field and quicker defenders to try to contain them.

“There are more opportunities for speed on the field, guys who can run in space and change direction,” says Ute associate head coach Gary Andersen.

Troy Taylor, Utah’s offensive coordinator, is among those who laud Bill Belichick’s uncanny ability to find players who can fill a specific role in their offensive and defensive schemes; it is why he has thrived with players others have ignored for various reasons, including size or a lack of credentials.

Receiver Chris Hogan was a collegiate lacrosse player who played one year of college football and had a total of 12 catches. Receiver Julian Edelman was an undersized (5-10) college quarterback. The 5-foot-9 Wes Welker, who pretty much reinvented the role of the slot receiver in today’s offenses, was an undersized, underused kick returner with the Dolphins who had zero catches in two seasons. Receiver Danny Amendola was undrafted. Dion Lewis, a 5-foot-8 running back, was cut by two teams and didn’t play for a year.

Likewise, Covey was recruited by only a handful of schools because of his size, despite sensational credentials as a prep quarterback — 7,400 yards and 111 touchdowns running and passing, unbeaten in 26 games, Utah Player of the Year. To the Utes’ credit, they foresaw a role he could fill in their offense. They moved him to the slot receiver position, and he was an instant hit.

Despite being a true freshman, despite playing his first season as a receiver, despite his size, he emerged as the Utes’ best offensive player in 2015, catching 43 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns. His skills were never more on display than against USC when he caught seven passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns and returned a punt 40 yards to the 2-yard line to set up another score. He was named to the Freshman All-America team.

Slot receiver is the most popular position for employing smaller, quicker players such as Renfrow, Covey, Amendola, Edelman and Welker. But as Andersen notes, “(The spread offense) also gives more opportunities to (smaller) running backs. You’ve got the 250-pound guys to hit the A and B gaps, but with the spread you’ve got to have the smaller, quicker guys who can get to the edge and get into space. The scatbacks.”

Think: 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles, 5-foot-8 Danny Woodhead.

The spread offense and the rise of aforementioned players have forced defenses to respond with smaller linebackers or scheme changes. “Those smaller, quicker players are hard to deal with in open space,” says Andersen. “You’ve got to have linebackers who can run. … There are times, when there are four wide receivers, that we’ll put four cornerbacks on the field and only one linebacker.”

Like all successful coaches, Andersen, a former head coach at Wisconsin, has had to adapt. Competing in the Pac-12 presents a different challenge than the Big Ten, which tends to lean toward traditional, grind-it-out running attacks. “We see a lot of (the spread) in our league,” says Andersen. “We scholarship two more cornerbacks than we did when I was at Wisconsin. It just depends on the league and the scheme.”

(Side note: Football is not the only sport that is utilizing smaller players; many NBA teams are turning to “small ball,” eliminating the traditional big, plodding 7-foot center in favor of smaller players who can run and shoot from anywhere on the floor. Three of the best players in the league are 6-2 Steph Curry, 6-foot Chris Paul and 5-9 Isaiah Thomas.)

Taylor, in his second year as Utah’s offensive coordinator, has always employed small, quick players in the slot position. “You’re looking for a guy who has good running skills but is too small to be a running back,” he explained. “He doesn’t necessarily have super top-end speed, but he’s quick. And he’s good in space — he sees space like a quarterback. There are some guys who, when you ask them if they were open, they say yes and then when you see it on video you can see they weren’t open. Ask Britain that question and he knows what happened out there; he’ll tell you he wasn’t open if he wasn’t.”

All of which is why Taylor welcomed Covey’s return. The coach watched him play on TV a couple of years ago while he was coaching a California high school team. “I knew he’d be perfect,” says Taylor.