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Utes finding continued success with in-state recruiting focus

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 5:59 a.m. MDT

Coach Kyle Whittingham watches during the Red-White Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Coach Kyle Whittingham watches during the Red-White Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Since taking over as head coach of the Utah football program, Kyle Whittingham has long held two philosophies when it comes to recruiting.

Whittingham’s first philosophy is that recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program, for obvious reasons. It is impossible to win without talent. The second philosophy regards from where that talent should come.

The No. 1 rule of Whittingham’s recruiting strategy is that top-tier players from the state of Utah come first, and as a result, his coaching staff’s marching orders are to attract the top local high school players to play for the state’s flagship university.

How important is it to land the best in-state talent when places like California and Texas are also fertile recruiting grounds for the Utes? The answer lies no further than April’s NFL draft. Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger, the only two Utes selected in the draft, are both homegrown talent.

Bingham High School's Lowell Lotulelei signed a letter of intent to Utah in South Jordan Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Bingham High School's Lowell Lotulelei signed a letter of intent to Utah in South Jordan Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The 2013 Utes will also feature a number of local players in prominent roles. Currently projected starters Vyncent Jones (Jordan), Jake Murphy (American Fork), Junior Salt (Brighton), Nate Orchard (Highland), Jason Whittingham (Timpview), Tenny Palepoi (Skyline) and LT Filiaga (Bingham) all hail from in-state high school football programs.

Utah is executing its strategy very well in preparation for the coming years. In the recruiting class of 2013, the Utes landed five of the top 10 players in the state of Utah as rated by Rivals.com. As part of the class, the Utes will add Pine View offensive lineman Logan Stott (ranked No. 3), Bingham defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (4), Cottonwood tight end Siale Fakailoatonga (5), Brighton linebacker Uaea Masina (6), and Alta tight end Harrison Handley (7) to their roster.

By way of comparison, in-state rival BYU only landed two of the state’s top 10 players — receivers Talon Shumway (9) and Inoke Lotulelei (10), with only Shumway holding an offer from the Utes. Utah State didn’t land any players on the list, despite its successful 2012 season. Utah’s recent recruiting dominance over its in-state rivals is a trend that would have been unthinkable a little more than a decade ago.

From left, Bingham's Drake Miller, Koa Wilson and Sky Manu tackle Alta's Harrison Handley in a football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) From left, Bingham's Drake Miller, Koa Wilson and Sky Manu tackle Alta's Harrison Handley in a football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The class of 2014 is shaping up to continue the trend of Utah’s in-state recruiting success. Jackson Barton is No. 61 on the Rivals.com national recruiting radar, the state’s top prospect in 2014 and a Utah commit. He is regarded as the best football prospect to come out of the state of Utah in the last decade and is the type of player that will not only anchor the Ute offensive line when he arrives on campus, but will help attract more elite talent.

One such player Whittingham hoped Barton would attract is Stansbury defensive tackle Allan Havili, another in-state recruit with multiple offers from out-of-state BCS conference schools. Havili was dominant at last summer’s All-Poly camp, and caught the attention of coaches from Arizona, Wisconsin and Hawaii, but the opportunity to play close to home in front of friends and family was too much to pass up.

Uaea Masina takes part in a Univerisity of Utah football practice Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Deseret News) Uaea Masina takes part in a Univerisity of Utah football practice Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Deseret News)

“The players and coaches treat me like I’m already a part of the team. (Utah) just feels like home. It’s also a big deal because the campus is just 30 minutes from my house. It felt like home to me,” Havili told UteZone.com after his commitment.

Kearns athlete Amone Finau is another committed player who earned a scholarship offer after standout performances in last summer’s camp circuit. Like Havili, Finau valued the opportunity to play in front of friends and family.

“The U. has a good program and it’s close to home, so family can come watch me,” Finau told UteZone.com around the time of his commitment in July of last year.

With four in-state players already committed for the class of 2014, the Utah coaching staff is focusing on bringing others into the fold. Of the uncommitted in-state prospects, the biggest name is Bingham tight end Dalton Schultz.

Logan Stott (Pine View) (Todd Ellis) Logan Stott (Pine View) (Todd Ellis)

Schultz, who has also been offered scholarships by national football powers such as Florida, Oklahoma and Stanford, is currently among the top recruiting priorities for Whittingham’s staff. However, it remains to be seen whether the Utah coaches will succeed in convincing him that staying close to home carries more benefits than pursuing out-of-state opportunities.

Also, East running back Ula Tolutau is another local player coveted by the Utes. Tolutau is a bruising back who carried the East offense as a junior. As a senior, he could prove to be the focus of the most high-profile in-state recruiting battle. Both Utah and BYU are actively pursuing the talented back.

Although next year’s signing day is a long way off, Utah’s in-state returns for 2014 already look promising, and Ute fans can reasonably expect the upward trend to continue.

Dan Sorensen is the editor in chief of UteZone.com, part of the Rivals.com network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and Basketball Writers Association of America. He can be reached at dsorensen@utezone.com.

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