Doug Robinson: The single biggest challenge for the Utes in the Pac-12

Published: Friday, Sept. 13 2013 12:04 a.m. MDT

Utah's Travis Wilson races towards the end zone to score a touchdown as Weber State's Danny Mullarkey (90) gives chase at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. Wilson is from San Clemente, Calif.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

As the University of Utah football team begins its third season in the Pac-12 Saturday against Oregon State, this is a good time to consider the single biggest (and most fundamental) challenge facing the Utes.

First, a quiz:

Besides Utah, from what state do the Utes recruit most of their players?

That’s easy. California. Everyone knows that.

Where are the best Pac-12 schools located?

Another no-brainer: California.

What schools do California’s top recruits favor?

Right again. The Pac-12 California schools — UCLA, USC, Cal and Stanford.

Final question: HOW ARE THE UTES SUPPOSED TO COMPETE IN THE PAC-12 IF THE VERY TEAMS THEY ARE COMPETING AGAINST ARE RECRUITING THE SAME PLAYERS AND GETTING THE CREAM OF THE CROP?

In other words, how are the Utes supposed to use two- and three-star recruits to beat five-star recruits?

That’s a more difficult answer and one that hasn’t received a lot of attention.

The Utes, who have won only seven of 18 games in the Pac-12, might sign the occasional blue-chip kid from California, but for the most part they are going to sign players only after the recruiting class has been picked over by USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford.

This isn’t even considering the competition they face from other Pac-12 schools not located in California that have a longer history in the conference and a richer tradition — the schools from Oregon, Arizona and Washington (Oregon has 43 Californians on this year’s roster and Arizona State has 35).

Listing the recruiting challenges the Utes face, Fred Whittingham, director of player personnel for Utah, says, “There’s USC with their tradition and location, and UCLA, which has a lot of appeal to kids in that area and has won more NCAA championships in all sports combined than any other school. They have bigger brand-name recognition and location. Kids can drive over there and visit any time they want. They have a built-in advantage.”

Then there are the brainiac schools to the north, Cal and Stanford. “Stanford has appeared in three straight BCS bowls," says Whittingham. "Forbes ranks them the best university in the country. Condoleezza Rice is on their faculty and does a presentation for campus visits. That’s not a fair fight.”

So, to restate the situation, the Utes have to compete with California schools to get California kids so they can compete with California schools. They have to convince recruits to leave family, friends, the beach and their favorite universities behind to go to the snow and mountains in Utah to play for a program with a short tradition of football excellence.

The Utes’ roster in the three years since they joined the Pac-12 has included 32-37 Californians — which ranges from 27 percent to 31 percent of the entire team. The impact of Californians is felt even more on the field. On the opening-day roster for 2011, Californians held 14 of the 22 starting positions, or 63.6 percent. In 2012, they held 10 starting jobs, or 45.5 percent; and this season they hold 9 starting jobs, or 41 percent.

Of the last seven players to start at quarterback for Utah, five were from California (the other two were from Texas). Utah’s leading rusher in eight of the last 13 years was from California.

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