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August 27, 2012

Utes take leadership seriously

As with every program across the nation, the University of Utah football team recently elected its team captains for the 2012-13 season. In some cases, the captains elected came as no surprise, with NFL caliber defensive lineman Star Lotulelei having been elected as well as running back John White. White may have been a dark horse, but given the way he carried a Ute offense that was in turmoil, and had no identity, his being elected was a lock.

White and Lotulelei were the rocks on offense, and defense, respectively. Both provide several constants for their teammates; steady and calm in demeanor neither player is vocal or over-emotional. Rather, White and Lotulelei are very much the classic leaders by example who would rather speak with their play, than hype teammates with words or chest-thumping.

"I'm honored to kind of represent these guys, and this team. It's a good group of guys who work hard, and want to win," said Lotulelei of his newly acquired title of captain. "I'm someone who works hard, and hope that I can influence others to do the same that way."

White made a similar, concise statement.

"In this program, hard work pays off and I feel that I've done that, but all of my teammates have done that but I've always tried to lead by working the hardest," he said. "So to be singled out that way means a lot, and I take it seriously. I feel I have to step up and do more."

Perhaps the surprise elections were senior wide receiver Luke Matthews and senior defensive tackle David Kruger.

To inside observers, neither choice is a big surprise having watched the way these two have consistently contributed to the team in ways less tangible, or visible than statistics in a box score.

Matthews, a big talent who has probably been under-utilized, and certainly under-appreciated in his time as a Ute, doesn't lead the offense in any statistical categories, but it might be fair to suggest that he's helped those that do get to that position.

Devonte Christopher, who does lead the Utes in most receiving categories has credited Matthews in prior seasons with helping him navigate the spotlight and high-profile status he enjoys as an offensive statistical leader. Christopher, a big personality, struggled with a position change from quarterback to wide receiver early in his career, but has progressively come to accept and even embrace the change. Ute fans have delighted in the front-row vantage point as they have watched Christopher become the explosive talent that he is today, and certainly, Matthews has played some pivotal role in that evolution.

"I just think about team first, and that's something that we've been working on as receivers," explained Christopher when asked about a smaller role in the Ute offense in 2012, given the depth and talent at the wide receiver role. "That's something I've grown to have. I've developed a real good sense for; that the team comes first. I've learned that whatever your role is to help the team win is what needs to be done."

The consummate teammate, Mathews is a straight-up character type player who doesn't talk about team, he's the living example of being the team as demonstrated by his selflessness over the course of his career at Utah. While others are garnering the attention and accolades, Matthews has managed to gain the one thing that few on the Utah offense have; the total and absolute respect of his teammates.

"While I've been here, I've just been focused on winning and whatever I could do to help make that happen, on or off the field. When everyone's focus is on team, that's when you win," explained Matthews shortly after his election was announced. "It feels amazing to be recognized by my teammates, and I feel it's something I've always done. It just feels really good to know that you've had an impact and could influence guys, and how they prepare and practice."

Known as one of the hardest working Utes day in and day out, Matthews' commitment and work ethic is made all the more impressive considering the fact that he's had to balance and fight diabetes throughout his athletic career. No slouch on the field, Matthews has been a key contributor to the Utes' offense, and has tallied 44 catches for 660 yards, but seems to be the go-to receiver when the Utes most need a play, and in those key situations, it has been Matthews' name that has been called.

He's also stepped up to play various roles, including carrying the ball as a fullback as well as putting in some time at the punt return position, making an impact in each role. A four year contributor, Matthews has 21 starts to his credit, and has played in 38 of 39 possible games in his career at Utah.

The final captain, David Kruger is perhaps the least vocal of each of the captains. Coming into the program in the large shadow of older brother, and Ute great Paul Kruger, the younger brother took some time to acclimate to the program.

Or perhaps to the pressure of the great potential he possessed.

Either way, a slower start to Kruger's career has progressed steadily to the point that, as a senior, he finds himself a necessary component to Lotulelei as anchors of the defensive line. Undoubtedly feeding off one another, like many great tandems, one is never as good without the other.

Despite all accounts that he was a team guy and great teammate, Kruger as captain seemed unlikely given the quiet, intense and almost introspective focus he brings to the field. Seemingly in the shadow of Lotulelei who has, and will continue to garner the focus of media and NFL scouts alike, that Kruger would emerge as a leader in his own right speaks volumes.

So then, this quiet, under-the-radar group has been chosen by their teammates to lead them through what the expect to be a special year. Given the personalities and complexion of these leaders could speak to a Utah team who has cut through the norms and perceived roles.

Stereotypes like quarterbacks and stars will always be team captains have been thrown out the window by the election of these Utes for 2012. Or rather, the perceptions of who is, or isn't a star have been altered as each of these players, in their own right. On any Utah football team, the defensive line is almost always the anchor, a rarity for most teams, it's a commonality.

Though John White is undeniably a star, his election is less about his statistics and Heisman candidacy than it is about the example he's set through hard work.

"I don't know who works harder than John [White]. Everyone works, but if there's someone that works harder than him, I don't know who it is," said his backup Kelvin York. "Until I came here [to Utah], I didn't know what hard work was, and he's helped teach me that. He's pushed me to do more and more."

Redshirt freshman receiver Geoff Norwood applies his observations to all four team captains.

"We got it right with these guys. This the right four guys to lead this team, because it's about what they do every single day," he stated. "I really thought about it. I didn't vote for my buddies, or who I'm tight with, I voted for the guys who set the best example, and who do the work. No one does that more than them."

Perhaps wide receiver Sean Fitzgerald said it best.

"This is a blue-collar program, and everyone works hard, or you just won't be here," he summarized. "For these captains to stand out within this program I think says a lot about who we are as a team."


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