Utah learning new system on the fly

Updated: August 22, 2003, 3:12 PM ET

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah receivers are certain of one thing as they approach their first season under coach Urban Meyer.

They're about to see more passes than they probably have in their careers.

"It's night and day," junior wideout Travis LaTendresse said of Meyer's spread offense. "Everything is spread out all over the whole field rather than just two receivers and nine guys in the box."

While Ute receivers expect to have fun with their busy new roles, learning the system has been a challenge as they approach the season opener Aug. 28 against Utah State.

The Utes have a new coach for the first time since 1990. Ron McBride was fired in November after a disappointing 5-6 finish.

Athletic director Chris Hill brought in Meyer, who in just two seasons as a head coach had established himself as a top prospect.

Meyer took over Bowling Green in 2001 and guided the Falcons to an 8-3 finish, their first winning record since 1994. Bowling Green followed that up with a 9-3 finish in 2002 and Meyer had caught the attention of Hill and several other athletic directors.

He inherited a team that went 8-4 two years ago and beat Southern California in the Las Vegas Bowl. But without an established starting quarterback to lead Meyer's high-powered offensive scheme, public expectations for the Utes aren't very high.

Utah was picked to finish fifth in a Mountain West Conference preseason poll.

"That's a reward of what happened last year. So that's where we should be picked," Meyer said. "BYU is picked fourth and Utah is picked fifth. I have a strong feeling that's not where we're both going to end up."

Meyer knew coming to Utah that gaining popularity with his new team would be difficult. McBride was beloved by his players, who tearfully said goodbye after his firing and pledged their loyalty.

"A lot of times people take over programs that are in complete shambles," Meyer said. "I have a great respect for what's been done here in the past."

Meyer is a taskmaster, bent on perfection with a style not likely to get players to warm up to him immediately.

But it's tough to argue with Meyer's results. Last season, Bowling Green was third in the nation in scoring with an average of 40.8 points per game and 448.9 yards of offense.

Meyer, who has also been on the staffs at Ohio State, Illinois State, Colorado State and Notre Dame before taking over at Bowling Green, overhauled the Utah staff.

Defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham and defensive backs coach Bill Busch are the only holdovers. Meyer brought in seven new assistants, including three from his Bowling Green staff and Mike Sanford, who was offensive coordinator at Stanford a year ago.

Gradually, players and coaches have made the adjustment.

"There was a lot of resistance," Meyer said. "There was resistance on my end, too. I'm used to a certain way. Everybody's got to work together and live together. Now that we're coming together, there is no more resistance. It's been fantastic."

It's also been frustrating.

With the new system comes a long learning process that the Utes struggled through spring practice to pick up. As the season opener approaches, Meyer said it's gotten much better, although not as consistently as he would like.

Meyer said he won't confirm his choice of a starting quarterback until the first series of the season opener. Junior Brett Elliott is back after starting the last six games last fall. He had taken over for Lance Rice, who started the first five. Rice is a senior this fall.

Sophomore Alex Smith is also competing for the job, which Meyer said is still open as the three contenders continue to learn the fast-paced offense.

"Our goal is to have high tempo. Get up to the ball quick and a lot of two-minute situations even when it isn't two minutes," Elliott said. "I think the high tempo is the key to the offense."

Utah's biggest hole is on the offensive line, where All-American tackle Jordan Gross has moved to the NFL.

The Utes have returning starters in Thomas Herrion (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) and Chris Kempoeatu (6-4, 339) on the line to block.

Marty Johnson, a 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back who can bulldoze through tacklers, has been out with a foot injury but is expected to be ready for the season opener. But he may not play because he faces a one- or two-game suspension for a DUI arrest. Meyer won't say which game or games he will sit out.

WhenJohnson does return, he will be a welcome addition. He missed most of last season with a knee injury after a stellar start.Johnson gained 405 yards on 58 carries in the first two games of last season before blowing out his knee.

Brandon Warfield, who led the Utes in rushing last fall, returns for his senior season.

Defensively, Whittingham begins his 10th season on the Ute staff with five returning starters, including end Jason Kaufusi, who led the Utes in tackles for a loss with 10.5 -- six of them sacks.

Kaufusi has been nursing a shoulder injury and is questionable for the season opener. He's played through injuries before without practicing.

Kaufusi said the transition from McBride to Meyer has been interesting.

"He's unique. That's for sure," Kaufusi said. "He's just a very competitive person. He just brings a lot of intensity."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index