Although much of the state is blanketed in snow and the opening of fall camp is still six months away, college football is never far from the minds of its fans.
Hundreds of ardent boosters gathered at the campuses of BYU and Utah Wednesday to celebrate national letter-of-intent day and catch a glimpse of the future.
In Provo, Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall reiterated that his recruiting base is the Beehive State and his 21-player class of 2008 featured eight from local high schools. Three hail from Bingham tight end Austin Holt, placekicker Justin Sorensen and linebacker Iona Pritchard.
"I like players who really want to be at BYU," Mendenhall said of the Miner trio. "When you go in a player's room and you see the (program's) mission statement above his bed, that's a good indicator that he's the right kind of young man. When they win a lot of football games as well under a head coach (Dave Peck) who has patterned a lot of his program similarly after how we do things here, they know expectations also."
Of the 15 players Utah coach Kyle Whittingham signed, five were local products, including Alta running back Sausan Shakerin, Timpanogos lineman Dave Kruger and Bingham lineman Derek Tuimauga.
"We feel good about our in-state production. We have five excellent football players who we are very excited about," Whittingham said. "In addition to those five, we have three in-state signees returning from missions and three in-state walk-ons. We have 11 new scholarship players from Utah. That's great for the state. Utah is always our first priority. We don't want to miss any kids in the state and want to make sure not to overlook anyone. The talent in Utah gets better every year. There are probably 20 to 25 Division I players in the state this year."
A year ago, Mendenhall created a stir on letter-of-intent day when he declared, "We didn't lose to anybody and won't lose to anybody, I think, from this point on in in-state recruiting."
That comment drew the ire of Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who responded: "First of all, I would be surprised if Bronco made that statement. If he did, it was ignorant and not factual. Utah and BYU will battle on in-state recruits year in and year out. However, we do not always recruit the same players. We feel very good about our in-state recruits and have once again signed quality players from the state of Utah. And we look forward to recruiting against BYU in the future and winning."
Mendenhall admitted Wednesday that he and his staff recruited both Kruger and Shakerin but lost out to the Utes.
"This year, we went after two that, at the end of the day, didn't chose us," he said. "We went after both of those players early. They chose the University of Utah, and it's probably a good choice for them. Both are good young men and good players."
Five of the eight in-state players who signed with the Cougars have won state championships, Mendenhall said. "Why is that relevant? They have a point of reference of what it means to win. They know what teamwork is, they know what a role is and they know what it's like to overcome adversity. So I like players that win."
Bingham posted a 14-0 record and earned a 5A state championship in 2006 and went 11-2 in 2007, including a loss to Shakerin's Alta squad in the state semifinals.
While Holt and Sorensen drew significant national attention during the recruiting process and orally committed to BYU early on, Pritchard took a different path.
"You have a tight end that was highly, highly, highly recruited nationwide in Austin Holt," Mendenhall said. "You have a kicker (Sorensen) that was the same. Everyone that wanted a kicker was after him. Then you have a player in Iona Pritchard who basically proved to us through every camp that we put on he kept showing up and at the end of the day, he was good enough and really wanted to be here. His recruitment was a little bit different from the other two. His work ethic, heart and determination is what earned him (a scholarship)."
Sorensen, who holds the record for the longest field goal in state history 62 yards is expected to make an immediate impact for the Cougars in the fall. Holt, meanwhile, is planning on serving an LDS mission before enrolling.
Shakerin will be given an opportunity to vie for playing time for the Utes in 2008. "The stable is full at running back, and adding Sausan is going to bolster that much more," Whittingham said. "He will have an opportunity to see what he can do. He has pure running back ability, and that's where I see him playing."
Whittingham added that Kruger could also see playing time this upcoming season. "There is a high likelihood that he will play. He is very developed for a 17-year-old and seems like he's getting bigger by the minute. If he's anything like his brother, Paul (a current Utah defensive lineman), he'll be able to help us right away. We'll give him a shot and see what he can do his first year."
Out of Utah State's 21 recruits, three are local players. Aggie defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Danilo Robinson said he is hoping for an infusion of talent and athleticism from this group."On average this group is a little taller and a little bit faster and has more potential to play right away for us. We're excited about this crop so far, and we're looking forward to the chance of working with them."
E-mail: [email protected]