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Steve Smith Pumps Up Utah Receiving Corps

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Steve Smith, a Utah receiver in college, took time to speak with Utah's receivers this offseason. Photo by Tom Hauck/Allsport.
Steve Smith, a Utah receiver in college, took time to speak with Utah's receivers this offseason. Photo by Tom Hauck/Allsport.

University of Utah receivers should be thanking their school for inspiration passed along during spring ball. Given their collective performance during the last season-and-a-half, Lord knows they need it.

So does Steve Smith.

The five-time Pro Bowler and Carolina Panthers franchise cornerstone, invited to the University Alumni Association’s Spring Awards Banquet in April, took time while in town to give the young men some instruction.

“It's always great to listen/watch a former Ute and further more someone who has knowledge. Thank you Steve Smith,” senior cornerback Keith McGill said through his Twitter account.

Certainly, McGill doesn’t know much. He has never started and sat out all of last year due to injury. But perhaps Smith’s knowledge of his alma mater’s receiving corps since October 2011 helped further inspire his visit. Sunk by the loss of quarterback Jordan Wynn to a season-ending shoulder injury (it wouldn’t be his last), Utah’s receivers combined for just 1,369 yards in the final nine contests (152 per game), ranking last in the Pac-12 in passing offense. The story was the same in 2012. Following an early-season loss of Wynn, the Utes again brought up the conference rear with 191 passing yards per game. After leading the Utes in receptions in 2010 and 2011, since-graduated DeVonte Christopher vanished last fall, ranking just fourth on the team in receptions.

To be fair, Christopher is now a member of the Washington Redskins, so quarterback issues were probably the root issue. (Head coach Kyle Whittingham and 26-year-old offensive coordinator Brian Johnson used not one, but two signal-callers after losing Wynn.) But now, the Utes are apparently deep under center, with Whittingham having witnessed sophomore Travis Wilson play the best spring game of any signal-caller in his 19 years on the hill. Wilson’s backup Adam Schulz, Whittingham says, may also be among the “upper echelon” of Pac-12 quarterbacks, and he’s only listed as a co-backup with Brandon Cox.

So that leaves a major task for the receivers if the Utes expect to begin another streak of nine straight bowl appearances. Whittingham, Johnson and new co-offensive coordinator (and football nomad) Dennis Erickson needed stability here. With recent dismissals and academic issues, they’re far from it. But sufficient wideouts and tight ends return, with backups perhaps making the difference if they can compete with the other second-stringers in their conference.

The Problems

There’s the well-known account of junior Quinton Pedroza, dismissed for violating unspecified team rules. (Including disclosures concerning the exit on his Twitter account, along with heated exchanges with fans of rival BYU). He did not catch a pass in his first two seasons, but was listed as a starter after spring camp.

The lesser-known dilemma is that one of the gems of Utah’s 2013 recruiting class will not arrive on campus in August due to academic ineligibility, according to Torn By Sports. Xavier Shepherd of Lakewood High School (Calif.) was the only representative of the University of Utah to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, an all-star game for graduating high school seniors. Now, he may arrive in Salt Lake City in January. Should Shepherd never bring his talents to Utah, that could be detrimental considering JUCO transfer Andre Lewis was the only other receiver signed for the 2013 class.

Shepherd tweeted in June that he looks forward to coming back “from this slump,” and that he looks forward to being mentored by family member Reggie Dunn, a Utah senior last year who set NCAA records for 100-yard touchdown kick returns and is now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wideouts: Dres Anderson, Kenneth Scott And Anthony Denham

While the Utes running backs reportedly are as deep as they have been in years, they are unproven: Only one (Kelvin York) has double-digit carries in a game (four times). Thus, Wilson may have to rely on juniors Anderson and Scott and senior Denham to move downfield fast.

Anderson hopes it goes no other way, and in a familial fashion. Anderson is the son of former NFL wide receiver Willie "Flipper" Anderson, who played 10 years with the Rams, Colts, Redskins and Broncos. Willie, Dres said, was a “speedster.”

“That's what I want to be,” he said. “I want to be a guy that gets downfield, making playing and catching touchdowns. He … was being a big-time player, and that's what I want to be."

Anderson last season led the receivers with 36 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns, Scott was third with 32 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns and Denham had 11 catches for 135 yards.

Anderson and Scott are both proven players. Unless they pull a Christopher, they should have star seasons if Wilson is at least effective. Denham has been hindered by injuries, including a hamstring injury and thumb injury that required surgery. He redshirted in 2011. But if the Utes can keep him healthy, the 6-foot-4, 222-pound East L.A. College transfer could have the biggest impact of the three this year, The Salt Lake Tribune’s Lya Wodraska has written.

Tight Ends: Jake Murphy And Westlee Tonga

As Utezone.com managing editor Dan Sorensen has written, Murphy has legitimate NFL potential — and Utah normally doesn’t have tight ends like that. Instruction from Erickson, who has coached two teams in the Pac-12 and others in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the NFL, should only help his prospects. With Tonga (6-foot-5, 250, like Murphy), the pair want to establish themselves as not only the top options at tight end, but for the entire offense. Whittingham said the Murphy-Tonga duo may be one the best in the Pac-12.

Anderson isn’t alone in inheriting professional talent. Murphy is the son of his father Dale Murphy, a former Major League Baseball All-Star. He caught 33 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns last season. Tonga was one of 13 Utes in 2013 to catch at least four passes.

Whittingham told the Deseret News’ Dirk Facer that the two, who both served LDS Church missions, clearly distinguished themselves from other tight ends in spring camp — and the projected starting signal-caller likes what he sees, too.

“They know how to get open,” Wilson told Facer. “They’re big targets and they’re definitely people that I trust throwing to.”

Behind Them: Greg Reese, Delshawn McClellon And Sean Fitzgerald

How the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Reese fits in will be one of the interesting developments for the Utes in the spring. Utah lost Dallin Rogers, Kendrick Moeai and David Rolf (now of the San Diego Chargers) so they would welcome some immediate help.

However, Reese didn't play last year, so it could take him a while to find his form again. The Camden, N.J., native led Arizona Western to the 2011 junior college national championship game.

McClellon and Sean Fitzgerald are the backups on the spring depth chart. McClellon is a redshirt freshman whose 4.38 time in the 40 is the second-fastest on the team. He was a three-year starter for Gahr High (Calif.), finishing as the state's third all-time career receiver.

It’s been a long time coming for Fitzgerald, but he may provide veteran leadership the corps needs — particularly in lieu of Pedroza’s dismissal and Shepherd’s absence. Since being named the Mission Viejo High (Calif.) Offensive Player of the Year way back in 2005, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior served an LDS mission and redshirted in 2009. He played in two, six and nine games in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively.