SALT LAKE CITY — Saturday's game at San Diego State could be Utah's last for quite some time against the Aztecs. With the Utes moving to the Pac-12 next season, it doesn't make a lot of sense to continue the series — especially in terms of recruiting.
Placement in the Pac-12's South Division with UCLA and USC means the Utes are guaranteed to play a game in the talent-rich state every year. A rotation of crossover games with the North Division means California and Stanford will also be on the schedule regularly.
The games, noted Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, are right in the footprint of a primary recruiting region for the Utes.
"It's good news," he said, while noting that approximately one-third of the players in his program are Californians.
"Southern California is maybe our most productive area," Whittingham acknowledged. "And if you can play in your primary areas of recruiting that's a plus because that's a selling point for the guys you're recruiting."
Utah has 28 California players on its roster, including starters Brian Blechen, Lamar Chapman, John Cullen, Chad Manis, Tevita Stevens, Justin Taplin-Ross, Junior Tui'one and Jordan Wynn.
The Utes, obviously, have fared well in California. They have for years. Whittingham said the sheer number of talented players in the state means there are plenty to go around even though most every program in the West recruits there.
The easy commute from Utah, he added, means it also makes geographic sense.
Wynn said the proximity to California is a factor for many recruits. So, too, is the opportunity for a homecoming.
"It's always nice to go home," said Wynn, who is from Oceanside, Calif. "I like playing at Qualcomm Stadium. I've played there a few times now and I feel comfortable there and I'm looking forward to it."
Being able to play in front of family and friends was a factor in Blechen's decision to sign with Utah out of Moorpark, Calif.
"I knew that we were kind of working on moving to the Pac-10 and it was a huge possibility. But either way, I like playing here and I like the program and the coaches and stuff," he explained. "Now knowing that I'll get to go home a couple of times for a game, that's awesome just because I know I'll have family there and friends. It'll be fun to play in front of them."
Blechen is expecting many to make the journey to San Diego this weekend. Although the Utes have played a game in California every year since 2004, Qualcomm Stadium has been the only venue in four of the seasons, including the current campaign.
Membership in the Pac-12 will change that. Blechen believes that will only boost an already strong recruiting base in the state.
"Definitely. I think a lot of players in California like playing in the Pac-10 and stuff and it's something they would want to do," he said. "Now that we're moving in there and knowing they'll go back to Cali is a big deal."
Increased interest, however, isn't necessarily going to alter Utah's approach to recruiting in California. Whittingham said it will continue to be a huge area of emphasis.
"We maybe tweak it a little bit," he noted. "It won't be a wholesale change."
It doesn't have to be. The Golden State has been quite golden for the Utes.
"I can't wait until we land there on Friday," Blechen said.
Recent games in California
2004: San Diego State
2005: Emerald Bowl (San Francisco)
2006: UCLA, San Diego State
2007: Poinsettia Bowl (San Diego)
2008: San Diego State
2009: San Jose State, Poinsettia Bowl (San Diego)
2010: San Diego State
Beginning with Pac-12 membership in 2011, Utah will alternate between games at USC and UCLA each year. The Utes will begin the rotation next fall at USC. Home-and-home contests between California and Stanford will also be in the mix with two-year cycles over the next eight years — the Golden Bears in 2011-12 and 2015-16 and the Cardinal in 2013-14 and 2017-18.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company