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

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 4:22 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) 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?

Utah's Lucky Radley finds room to run in the fourth quarter of a game against Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. Radley is from Inglewood, Calif. (Matt Gade, Deseret News) Utah's Lucky Radley finds room to run in the fourth quarter of a game against Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. Radley is from Inglewood, Calif. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

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.”

UCLA wide receiver Devin Fuller, right, runs past Nevada defensive back Evan Favors during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013.  (Chris Carlson, AP) UCLA wide receiver Devin Fuller, right, runs past Nevada defensive back Evan Favors during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Chris Carlson, AP)

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.

Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler celebrates his touchdown against Washington State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013.  (Chris Carlson, AP) Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler celebrates his touchdown against Washington State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (Chris Carlson, AP)

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.

Whittingham sums it up when he says, “When you look at the highest-rated prospects — those listed by Scout.com or Rivals.com — we’re not going to come out on top very often. There are a few exceptions. We can compete for the Polynesian athletes because of our culture here. There are a lot of Polynesians and we have had a lot of success with them. And we can compete for the LDS kids. We’re not BYU, but there are thousands of LDS girls to date here and we have the large institute on campus. But other than that, we don’t have a niche to get into those top prospects in California.”

The Utes instead bank on developing players and discovering overlooked players or players who were playing out of position. Ute coaches have analyzed the results of the recruiting services that rate prep football players — Rivals. Com and Scout.com. As Whittingham notes, the scouting services have proven to be “pretty accurate” in sizing up talent, especially now that there is so much online access to video, but there is also hope in those rankings for the Utes.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) calls a play against San Jose State during the first half of an NCAA football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (Tony Avelar, AP) Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) calls a play against San Jose State during the first half of an NCAA football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (Tony Avelar, AP)

“If you look at the all-Pac-12 teams," says Whittingham, "the greatest number of the players were three-star recruits (five stars being the best); that means someone did a good job of evaluating what they can do in college and what they can grow into. Maybe they were a pretty good high school quarterback, but they were better at free safety (in college). You have to be able to project and develop what players can be.”

Whittingham continues, “One thing that gets overlooked: Four- and five-star athletes have been told how great they are since they were 8, and sometimes they come with a sense of entitlement. They’re not as hungry. There is a lot to be said for developing players and for players who want to be developed.”

The Utes’ recruiting program will continue much the same as always. Utah athletes are the Utes’ biggest recruiting priority, then comes California. They do a little recruiting in the Northwest, Idaho and Arizona. But after Utah and California, the Utes’ best recruiting grounds are in Texas and the South. Assistant coach Morgan Scalley has been successful in the Houston area in recent years — there are 16 Texans on this year’s roster. The Utes, who have several Polynesian coaches on their staff, have assigned assistant coach Ilaisa Tuiaki to mine Polynesian talent at two Dallas-area schools, Euless Trinity and L.D. Bell. Another assistant, Brian Johnson, a native of Texas, is finding talent in Louisiana.

“We feel Louisiana is a really good place for us," says Whittingham. "The best kids there are going to LSU, Georgia and Mississippi. But the next level kid is not high on going to Tulane or Louisiana-Monroe or Louisiana Tech.”

No matter where the Utes go, they're looking for the same recruits — kids who were bypassed by the traditional powers. They hope that's enough to compete in the Pac-12.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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