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He’s Right Man for All the Jobs

Times Staff Writer

Eric Weddle’s high school coach did everything short of leasing a Westwood apartment as part of a sustained campaign to get his star player to UCLA.

He made phone calls, sent highlight videos and issued breathless declarations, calling Weddle “the best high school football player I’ve ever seen.” But the effort on behalf of the Alta Loma High standout failed to sway the Bruins as well as coaches from other major college programs.

“They were all saying, ‘Coach, I don’t have any use for a 5-foot-11, 180-pound wide receiver,’ “John Kusleika recalled earlier this week. “ ‘I have 6-2 guys all over the place.’ ”

All over the place? That’s an interesting choice of words considering that, four years later, Weddle covers virtually every inch of the field as perhaps the most versatile player in the college game.

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The Utah senior will be ever-present Saturday evening when the Utes play UCLA at the Rose Bowl; the Bruins must contend with No. 32 on offense, defense and special teams.

At one point or another, Weddle could play safety, quarterback, receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner, punter, cornerback or running back. Oh, and he also participates on special-team coverage units and serves as the holder on field goals and PATs.

“Whatever position he plays, I know it’s helping us win,” said Utah safeties coach Derrick Odum, who begrudgingly shares his star pupil with the other assistants during practice. “I don’t know if there is a best position for him.”

Officially, Weddle, now 6 feet and 200 pounds, is listed as a strong safety on the depth chart. He has started 32 of the Utes’ last 33 games as either a safety or cornerback and was selected the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year last season after making 78 tackles, including 11 for losses.

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Weddle also had seven carries and threw two passes after joining the offense late in the season, describing his role as “a changeup to throw something at the defense.” But he insisted that his offensive and special-team functions are secondary to his responsibilities in the secondary.

“All those things don’t take away from playing safety and corner,” said Weddle, whose 11 interceptions are tied for sixth most in school history. “That’s what I do. That’s my No. 1 priority. All that other stuff is just extra stuff on the side. If it took away from my ability to play defense, I wouldn’t do it.”

Though Weddle wouldn’t divulge exactly how involved he would be on offense against UCLA, he looms as large as the Wasatch Mountains in Coach Kyle Whittingham’s plan to beat the Bruins.

“So far there’s never been any challenge we’ve thrown at him that he can’t handle,” Whittingham said. “Whatever position or situation you put him in, he has that knack to be able to adapt to it very quickly. He’s a natural.”

Weddle’s high school coach had been telling college coaches pretty much the same thing since he assumed control of the Alta Loma program before Weddle’s senior year. But interest in the two-way player waned when his offensive role switched from receiver to quarterback as a senior out of necessity for the team.

“His junior year, he was getting letters from Notre Dame, the Pac-10 schools,” said Steven Weddle, Eric’s father. “His senior year, nobody gave him any respect because he played quarterback. He wasn’t a quarterback, but he had to do what he had to do.”

Kusleika said he told college recruiters that he envisioned Weddle as a defensive back at the next level, but “they didn’t want what they were calling a 5-11 DB. They weren’t sure if he was big enough. Well, he was big enough to play in the Fiesta Bowl.”

Indeed, Weddle seems satisfied that everything has worked out for the best. He became a starter by the fourth game of his freshman season and went on to play a critical role in Utah’s school-record 18-game winning streak. The next stop could be the NFL.

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“Without a doubt,” said Whittingham, who recruited Weddle and was delightfully surprised that the prospect hadn’t been snatched by a more prominent college program. “I just could not understand why he was not more highly recruited, and I guess a lot of people are now asking themselves that.”

Though he acknowledged being driven by the fact that he was overlooked, Weddle said vindication would not be on his mind when he stepped onto the field at the Rose Bowl.

“It’s in the past,” Weddle said. “For some reason, they didn’t want me and it’s fine with me because I’ve had a great career and wouldn’t take anything back. ... The whole reason we’re going is to win a football game, not to get back at UCLA.”


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