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Utah football: True freshmen fighting for roles (with video)

August 16, 2016 GMT

Donavan Thompson made the tough decision this offseason to shear off the dreadlocks he grew for years in Miami.

But now a freshman linebacker at Utah, Thompson, 19, decided that a fresh start deserves a fresh cut.

“Toughest part is mainly the altitude and learning a new system again, and starting from the bottom,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my best to get on the field and do whatever it takes to contribute to the team.”

Thompson and a few other freshmen are closer to contributing than most years.

A newly released depth chart lists four true freshmen in the two-deep lineup: quarterback Tyler Huntley, receiver Demari Simpkins, defensive end Bradlee Anae and Thompson. That doesn’t include others who are in competition for spots, including defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Maxs Tupai, defensive backs Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon, and running back Zack Moss.

Utah’s recruiting class last year was its best rated since 2012, listed in the top 35 of most recruiting services’ class rankings. But coach Kyle Whittingham said that may understate how good the Utes’ haul was in 2016.

“We felt like it was our best signing class ever,” he said. “We still feel the same way, even more strongly now that we’ve worked with them for a few weeks.”

While no true freshman is in line to start yet, several have made waves. Anae is one example: After coming in undersized, he bulked up to 243 pounds by subsisting on six meals a day and vanilla protein shakes after weightlifting.

Right now, his main problem is being banged up. He’s hurting in both shoulders, his left arm and hand — some days, he says it feels like he hurts all over.

“We all were really good in high school, but it’s a way different level,” Anae said. “But I like it, it’s a good atmosphere and a competitive environment. It’s only going to make this team better.”

For Simpkins, the process started in spring. Arriving with his Hallandale High School teammate Huntley, he had a chance to adjust to the altitude early. Now he feels like he’s matching the veterans step-for-step.

At slot receiver he’s competing with junior Kyle Fulks and senior Tyler Cooperwood for reps. With Huntley and Moss both working themselves in for back-up spots, Hallandale grads have shown well in the week-and-a-half so far of fall camp.

Redshirt possible for quarterback Huntley?

Of course, even the best freshmen might not play their first year.

After manufacturing exciting competition this spring with Brandon Cox at quarterback, Huntley is still neck-and-neck, but for the backup job behind Troy Williams. While Williams still has yet to cement his status as Week 1 starter, he’s currently taking all first-team reps — indicating that he’s the one to beat.

But jockeying for second-team reps might be harder for Huntley, given that he has a redshirt year to burn and Cox does not. Whittingham said that particular detail is “in the equation.”

He added: “Knowing that Tyler has a redshirt year, knowing that Tyler is not physically as big and strong as we need him to ultimately get. There’s quite a few factors that have got to be figured in. … It’s just about who we decide to name the No. 2 guy, which is important because that guy gets reps and the other guy basically gets no reps once the season starts.”

Butler-Byrd in court

Senior receiver Cory Butler-Byrd, currently serving an indefinite suspension, made his initial appearance in Utah’s Third District Court on Monday morning for his class A misdemeanor charge.

Butler-Byrd was arraigned, booked and released, facing a charge of criminal mischief stemming from his alleged defacing of a police car and building in July. He is set to reappear in court next week.

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon