John Peel has been playing for Utah for six years now — longer than Kyle Whittingham has been the head coach and longer than anyone else on the Utes' team.

Actually, playing might not be the correct word. While this is Peel's sixth year on the Utah football roster, he has sat out for three full seasons and half of another. While he has contributed on special teams, he has caught just one pass as a receiver.

That should all change this year for Peel, who is being counted on to be an essential part of the new Ute offense under offensive coordinator Dave Schramm.

The senior from Arizona is fighting for one of the four starting receiver spots and is likely to play a lot whether he ends up at No. 1 or No. 2 in one of the receiver positions.

"He'll be in there quite a bit," said Schramm. "He'll be an integral part of what we do, no question."

Schramm sees Peel perhaps taking over the role Bradon Godfrey had the past couple of years as a sure-handed receiver over the middle. He said Peel is valuable because he can play all four receiver spots — the X, Y, Z and H positions — thanks to his speed, good hands and intelligence.

"He knows them all," Schramm said. "He's a great guy to have. He's one of those older guys that knows every position, and if you ever got in a bind, you could put him in there and you know the job would be done. He's a leader, and he's been around for a long time."

OK, coach, you don't have to rub it in. However, while Peel is not the oldest guy on the team at age 23, he, along with running back Ray Stowers, has been around the longest.

Peel came to Utah back in 2004, in a class that included Brian Johnson and Brent Casteel, having been recruited personally by former head coach Urban Meyer. He played at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he was first-team all-state and chose Utah over Boise State.

"The first time here I fell in love with it and verbally committed on my trip," he says.

However, he injured his knee his first year at Utah — a portent of things to come — and sat out as a redshirt in 2004. The following season, Peel played in seven games, mostly on special teams, but missed nearly half the year with a groin injury.

In 2006, Peel was switched to defensive back, but he was rushed from camp in an ambulance one day with neck and back injuries, which turned out to be so serious he couldn't compete in either the 2006 season or 2007 season.

Finally, Peel was healthy for all of last season and played in all 13 games, as a backup receiver and on most of the Utes' special teams.

"I'm staying healthy," he said. "That's my No. 1 thing. It's a huge deal. (The injuries are) all behind me."

Peel said he had a good idea he would be cleared to play another season, but he still had to go through spring drills and summer conditioning not certain until he found out from the NCAA last month that he was eligible for another year.

"I didn't really know for sure until this summer," he said. "I had to have a lot of faith and confidence. My trainer did a great job of helping me out."

Peel does appear to be in great shape. He looks like pure muscle, and according to Schramm, his body fat is around 3 percent.

"John is terrific," Schramm says. "He's been through so much in terms of injuries and bad luck. But he's done such a phenomenal job in terms of getting his body ready to go. He's a tough guy, and he wants to play."

In fact, Peel wants to play so much, he's a starter on each of the Utes' special teams, using his speed and overall toughness on the coverage and return teams.

But as much as he enjoys special teams, Peel would like to start catching passes this year and believes the Ute offense will give him a chance.

"Our confidence and intensity is higher than I've ever seen it here," Peel said. "We're starting to click with this new offense. It's a good system and everyone's buying into it. It's fast-paced and everyone's got to be in good shape. So far, so good."

Incredibly, Peel could be a senior for a third straight year in 2010 as he is considering applying for another extension from the NCAA since this will only be his third season of play.

It wouldn't be without precedent. Former Ute Darryl Poston, another oft-injured player, was given a seventh year to complete his eligibility after sitting out with injuries for three years.

Peel hasn't decided what he'll do and is only concerned with this year.

"I don't know; it's been talked about," he said. "There hasn't been time to even think about that. I'm going to go one season at a time. If I can stay healthy, it's something I would seriously consider."

e-mail: sor@desnews.com