SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s season opener against Idaho State proved to be a success on many fronts, including comebacks. Last week’s 56-14 win by the Utes marked the return from injury of four starters — safety Brian Blechen, wide receiver Kenneth Scott, tight end Westlee Tonga and quarterback Travis Wilson.
All four made an impact — albeit in limited action — in the lopsided win over the Bengals. The Utes used 72 players.
For Blechen and Scott, it was their first game back in a long, long time. Blechen missed the entire 2013 season with a knee problem and Scott had been out since early in last year’s opener with an ankle injury.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said both looked good in their comeback games. He noted the acrobatic 26-yard touchdown catch that Scott made and praised the aggressiveness and toughness he brings to the receiver position. Whittingham had similar things to say about Blechen, calling him a hard-nosed, tough football player.
Whittingham noted that being a team captain shows what Blechen’s peers think of him. Whittingham added that Scott is very feisty and the way he handles himself rubs off on the other receivers.
Scott had four catches for 57 yards against Idaho State, while Blechen made two tackles.
“It’s great to have them both back,” Whittingham said. “They’re both team leaders.”
Wilson and Tonga also made successful returns in the opener. Tonga played in only the first four games of 2013 and Wilson missed the final three games following the discovery of an intracranial artery injury.
The junior completed 13-of-18 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown in two quarters of play against Idaho State.
“I thought he had a very efficient first half. His numbers were excellent,” Whittingham said. “He put the ball where it needed to be, made some great runs.”
Late in the first quarter, Wilson dove head first into the end zone from 2 yards out.
“That shows you right there that he’s got no apprehension about running the football,” Whittingham said. “He’s completely confident in what he’s doing.”
Tonga, meanwhile, proved to be a valuable target. He led the Utes with five catches, netting 61 yards.
Whittingham said he’s a guy that they think is a “very prolific tight end” in the throw game.
GOOD FOUNDATION: Versatile sophomore Dominique Hatfield, who will continue to play wide receiver and be a gunner on special teams, is now primarily a cornerback — moving up the depth chart as a co-starter with Davion Orphey.
“He’s made some good strides in the right direction. Domo has a lot of natural abilities that put him in a good position to be a really good corner,” said Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah. “It’s then just learning the techniques necessary to be really good at this level and those are the things that he needs to continue to develop.”
Hatfield, who was the defensive MVP of his high school league as a senior, led the Utes with two pass breakups in the opener against Idaho State. He also caught a 9-yard pass in the victory.
As a defender, Shah noted that Hatfield needs to keep improving things like body position, eye location, hand placement, foot placement and knowing what you’re doing at the beginning, throughout and on top of routes.
“It’s just understanding the nuances that the position entails at this level,” Shah explained. “But from what he’s done so far and his transition, I’m very pleased with the foundation that he’s laid.”
EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said opening on a Thursday and then waiting nine days for the second game doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on anything. “It’s actually a positive to get your guys healed up from the game.” Junior defensive tackle Daniel Nielson, who has been getting his conditioning up to speed while recovering from an undisclosed injury, is practicing again, and Whittingham noted that he’s fully ready to go and will be on some special teams units. The Utes hoped to have senior wide receiver Geoffrey Norwood, who like Nielson has been out with an undisclosed injury, back this week. However, Whittingham said it was questionable as of Wednesday.