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Utah Utes football: U. program raising the bar

Published: Tuesday, May 3 2011 12:20 a.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) 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."

Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow speaks with Tevita Stevens as the Utes warmed up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow speaks with Tevita Stevens as the Utes warmed up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

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.

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) 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)

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.

Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn did not practice during spring ball because his surgically repaired shoulder was still healing, but will be ready to lead the Utes in the fall. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn did not practice during spring ball because his surgically repaired shoulder was still healing, but will be ready to lead the Utes in the fall. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

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."

 (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

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.

 (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

"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."

Springing forward

Utah football's first "Pac-12 spring" went well.

"It was a very positive experience overall," Whittingham said after the Utes wrapped up their 15 spring practices last month. "We got a lot accomplished."

Above everything else, however, Whittingham is most pleased about something they didn't do — lose any players to serious injury.

"We stayed healthy," he said. "We didn't have any injuries that are going to impact us in the fall and that was very fortunate."

There was other good news as well.

"We were able to install just about the entire offense, which was one of our priorities," Whittingham said of the scheme new offensive coordinator Norm Chow has introduced.

The Utes did so with starting quarterback Jordan Wynn unable to throw passes while recovering from shoulder surgery. Sophomore Griff Robles and freshman Tyler Shreve wound up getting the reps.

"Both of those guys made tremendous strides," Whittingham said. "They've got all summer to continue to work on their game and then we've got 29 practices before we play our opener against Montana State."

Wynn has since been cleared to start throwing the ball and is expected to be completely healthy when fall camp opens in August.

Utah's stable of quarterbacks, though, could grow to four by then. Whittingham acknowledged that's the number of signal callers on scholarship the Utes would prefer to have on the roster at all times.

"We've always got our eyes out for good players, obviously, and right now we're short that one scholarship at quarterback," Whittingham said. "And so if we come across a guy that we think can help us, we'll look hard at bringing him on board."

If not, he continued, they'll be just fine — noting one spring that Brian Johnson was the only quarterback in camp.

"We're not in dire straits," Whittingham said. "But if we can help ourselves out by adding another quarterback to our program, then we'll do it."

Inexperience also permeated the ground game in spring ball. True freshman Harvey Langi, junior college transfer John White and rugby star Thretton Palamo were charged with filling the void left by the graduation of Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, as well as the health-related retirement of Sausan Shakerin.

The results were positive. All three newcomers showed promise and will continue competing for the starting job this fall.

"The running back position looks like it's going to be productive for us," Whittingham said. "That was another concern, particularly in recruiting when we lost all those backs."

Getting that position back up to speed, as well as the play of cornerbacks Ryan Lacy and Conroy Black, were among the bright spots identified by Whittingham as Utah prepares to make the jump from the MWC to the Pac-12.

"I feel good about our progress. We've got a long ways to go. This summer is going to be critical for our development," he said. "We can't be there as coaches, but our progress has got to continue through the summer if we're going to have a chance to be a good football team."

Utah football

Award type: Head count

NCAA scholarship max limit: 85

Utah actual award, 2010-11: 79.5

Pac-12 football programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State.

Note: The University of Utah offers the NCAA maximum for all sports, should the coach want to use them. Numbers reflect not only people who have quit, are cut or withdrawn, but also cases where a coach held back scholarships (or parts of scholarships in the case of the equivalency sports) in one year so that they would have more to use in another.

Utes at a glance

Advantage: The Utes have put together eight consecutive winning seasons and have an established program in place. Rice-Eccles-Stadium is a tough venue for visiting teams and could be a factor in keeping Utah competitive.

Challenge: Depth. The Utes simply lack the depth that most BCS teams enjoy. It remains to be seen if it'll be an immediate factor. Fact is, it'll likely take a couple of recruiting classes to bring Utah up to speed in that regard.

7-3: Utah's record against Pac-12 teams under Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham.

Norm Chow says: "We're as good as anybody (in the Pac-12). But everybody is as good as we are. So we've just got to execute and work hard."

Leaders of the Pac: Preseason favorites Oregon and Stanford are the only teams in the league Utah isn't scheduled to play this season.

Bottom line: Even without the Ducks and Cardinal, Utah's schedule is challenging and vastly different than life in the Mountain West Conference. A winning season and a bowl bid, however, are likely.

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