The off-season was barely 48 hours old when the University of Utah football coaches boarded planes Monday night bound for varying destinations in search of football talent.
Following Saturday's season-ending 45-22 loss to BYU, Utah coaches met with their players on Sunday and Monday and then left town."It all starts with recruiting," said Head Coach Ron McBride, referring of course to his rebuilding project.
The Utes finished their first season under McBride with a record of 4-7 overall, 2-6 in conference play - almost identical to last year's 4-8, 2-6 marks - but the gung-ho coach is not discouraged.
"Anytime you go into a program that has problems, you don't go in and perform magic," says McBride. "I expected to have ups and downs, and we did. It's like the guy (Coach Bill McCartney) who went to Colorado. Just because someone comes in with a different philosophy doesn't mean he's going to turn the thing around in a year."
Aside from time, the rebuilding process will require good recruiting - something McBride excels at, by all accounts. "At this point, we know who we want," said McBride. "We've got some good names. We've just got to get them."
A year ago, McBride's recruiting priority was defense, particularly the defensive line. The defense improved, but the offense slumped badly. "We decided to build our defense first," says McBride. "The next phase is offense."
McBride's holiday shopping list includes a half-dozen junior college and prep offensive linemen, a high school quarterback and a couple of running backs that "we think we're close on," says the coach."
McBride has a head start on recruiting. Not only do the Utes return 15 starters, but they also have a number of last year's recruits waiting in the wings who were forced to sit out the season for varying reasons.
The Utes already are solid at several positions, particularly on defense, which returns nine starters. Among the returnees are linebacker Anthony Davis, who totaled 87 tackles (59 solo) and 10 tackles for loss despite missing most of four games with injuries; linebacker Pita Tonga, who had 94 tackles (47 solo); defensive end Jimmy Bellamy, who had 10 sacks and 3 tackles for loss; and defensive tackle Dave Chaytors, who had 66 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 16 hurries.
The offense, which scored 14 or fewer points in five games, is another matter. McBride frequently criticized the play of his offensive line, the running game was non-existent (88 yards per game) and the quarterbacks were erratic.
The Utes shuttled quarterbacks Jason Woods (five starts) and Mike Richmond (six starts) in and out of the lineup all season. Richmond put up the better numbers, completing 156 of 287 passes (54 percent) for 1,976 yards, 8 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Nevertheless, he will be battling for the starting job again this spring, this time with three other contenders.
Says McBride, "It's between Stewart Hansen, Jason Woods, Mike Richmond and Frank Dolce (who redshirted the season). I don't think we can go out and get a guy who could beat out these guys next year. Realistically, it's probably going to be one of those guys."
The Utes' strongest position at the moment is wide receiver. Sophomore Bryan Rowley caught 28 passes for 762 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. He averaged 27.2 yards per catch, just missing the 21-year-old NCAA single-season record of 27.9 (Rowley, who didn't catch a single pass in two games, needed a minimum of 30 catches, plus the slight additional yardage to break the mark). Another rising receiver to watch: slotback Sean Hutson.
The Utes' recruiting needs aren't as dire as they appear. As McBride says, "We have some of the people we need already." That's because a number of last year's JC and prep recruits were unable to meet academic requirements in time for the 1990 fall semester. Others sat out the year with injuries. Several of those players could have the kind of immediate impact that transfers such as Davis and Bellamy had this season.
Last year's JC recruits include: John Pyburn and Rick Verbalaitis, who were injured this year, and who could help the team's offensive line problems; Wideout Royal Wilbon, linebacker Jeff Harkless and running back Pierre Jones sat out the year to complete their JC requirements. Harkless and Jones both earned JC All-America honors. "Harkless will pay off for us next year," says McBride. (Defensive tackle Vince Lobendahn, another promising JC recruit last year, joined the team this year but missed most of the season because of a neck injury. "He's a question mark at this point," says McBride.)
Last year's freshmen recruits include: Keith Williams, a former California all-state running back, and linebackers Sione Mahe and Devo Fineanganofo were Prop. 42 cases this year. McBride raves about a trio of wide receivers - Hank Dorner, Henry Lusk and Vernon Shaver (a prep All-American) - who redshirted the season. He also gushes about Jimmie Pryor, a California all-state defensive back and wide receiver, and Jimmy Williams, a two-time all-state linebacker from Las Vegas with 4.5 speed, who will finally rejoin the Utes next season.
"We won't be in the same situation as last year," says McBride. "We won't go after as many guys who are going to have grade problems in JC trying to get their AA degrees on time. We need probably 10 quality players in this recruiting class. Last year we had about seven quality players - the guys who played right away and were instant players here. Now we need, between the guys who redshirted and the guys we bring in, about 10 of them."