Utah Utes football: U. program raising the bar

Published: Monday, May 2 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Utah's Head Coach Kyle Whittingham watches he team during their first practice of the spring Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in the indoor practice facility.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Editor's Note: This is the second of an ongoing series exploring the Utes' move to the Pac-12 Conference. Read the first one here.

SALT LAKE CITY — It didn't take long for Utah's impending conference switch to have an impact on the football program. Within 10 days of the announcement that the Utes would be leaving the Mountain West for the Pac-12, seven verbal commitments rolled in.

All of them, head coach Kyle Whittingham said, were players they wouldn't have gotten without the affiliation switch.

It's a new world and an extremely more competitively one at that.

"The Pac-12 is a very balanced conference," Whittingham said. "There's excellent football teams throughout the league."

In order to be competitive, he explained, the Utes have to raise the bar in recruiting and continue to build depth within the program.

And that's not all.

"We've got to continue to upgrade the facilities. That ties

right in to recruiting," Whittingham said. "The facilities, building bigger and better buildings, is what everyone is trying to do. It all is under the umbrella of recruiting because that's what it takes to get the top recruits."

Having the proper facilities to attract them, he added, is one of the components necessary to compete in the Pac-12.

As such, Utah is set to begin construction on a new $16 million football facility.

Building and upgrading facilities, Whittingham noted, is a constant at this point and time. It's something that Bowl Championship Series schools do. Some, he acknowledged, to a greater extent than others.

"You've got to keep up in that area," Whittingham said. "That requires constant attention."

So, too, is the building of a deep roster.

Whittingham emphasized it's a big deal. He used Alabama as an example. If the Crimson Tide lose a first-string player to injury, they've got "two or three first-team, blue chip, All-American recruits" behind him.

For Utah, developing such depth is a work in progress. Whittingham said he and his staff are constantly trying to improve depth at all positions and make the Utes a better football team.

Moving to the Pac-12, though, has changed things a bit.

"Now it's not going to be as much uncovering the diamond-in-the-rough as going after the finished products," Whittingham said. "To compete at the highest levels, you've got to have a certain amount of the highly recruited, high-profile athletes in the program."

Whittingham said his assistants have done a great job identifying "diamonds-in-the-rough" and they'll still be part of the equation.

Utah, after all, has had great success developing talent. The Utes went undefeated in 2004 and 2008, despite a lack of BCS-type depth.

"We had very good fortune as far as keeping guys healthy and that was one of the reasons we were able to have the type of seasons we had," Whittingham said. "If you get a season where you get a couple of guys hurt and the guys behind them — there's a big drop-off — that could impact your season tremendously."

It's one of the many scenarios the Utes may face initially in joining the ranks of Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State.

"All I can say is our players and coaches are excited about the challenge," Whittingham said. "That's exactly what it is. It's a big challenge for our program, for our athletics department. We'll find out exactly where we stand very shortly."

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