SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of National Letter of Intent day, Wednesday, don’t expect the Utes to launch fireworks. Expect something like this: “We like who we signed this year. We think there are some quality players and we filled some needs.”
This is every coach’s mantra, and Kyle Whittingham is no exception. No coach says, “We didn’t get much this year. We got killed in recruiting.”
That’s not to say Utah will end up destitute. During the December signing period, the Utes nabbed Penn State graduate transfer Manny Bowen, a four-star linebacker in high school, and four-star freshman offensive guard Sataoa Laumea. Another four-star addition is Texas transfer QB Cameron Rising, who has announced he will attend Utah.
But Whittingham has said this will be a small recruiting class. The Utes had only 13 seniors last year. So when recruiting website 24/7 Sports ranked the Utes 11th among Pac-12 schools this winter, that’s part of the reason. Playing time will be limited for newcomers.
Utah won the South Division last year and has almost everyone back. The departure of starters Jordan Agasiva, Corrion Ballard, Cody Barton, Jackson Barton, Marquise Blair, Lo Falemaka, Matt Gay, Chase Hansen and Mitch Wishnowsky isn’t insignificant, but it is manageable.
NLI day might be a yawner for Utah unless it adds four-star receiver Puka Nacua, who has committed to USC but said he will announce his final decision on Wednesday. Besides Utah and USC, he has offers from Washington, Oregon and UCLA. His brother Samson, already is a Ute wideout.
Laumea is the only current signee rated four stars, other than transfers Bowen and Rising. Is this a reason for the Ute to panic? No. Top recruits are nice insurance, but the Utes are positioned to win the South Division again next year with what they already have. The transfer players will give them significant depth.
Utah’s coaches are similar to others when they talk of recruiting. They avoid bragging beforehand and downplay most things. Whittingham and his assistants claim they pay little or no attention to star ratings on the recruiting websites, anyway. Fair enough. They get paid great money to do their own scouting. But if a five-star does happen to show up, they aren’t going to complain.
The Utes say they try to turn three-star recruits into four-stars, anyway. They make a good case, considering the number of NFL players they produce. But in December, four-star quarterback Jayden Daniels chose Arizona State over Utah. That was disappointing for the Utes, but not shocking. They already have starter Tyler Huntley and backup Jason Shelley returning, with Rising on his way.
Even if Nacua did sign with Utah, it wouldn’t shoot them up much on the recruiting charts. Utah faces strong competition from conference schools in attractive locations.
Retired athletic director Chris Hill often repeated the phrase, “You have to know who you are.” He is quick to admit Utah doesn’t have, say, USC’s pedigree or wealth. But at least until next fall, it has the advantage of respect. Athlon Sports has Utah projected to repeat as the South Division winner.
Hill is far from a defeatist. “Knowing who you are” gave him perspective for his 30-plus-year career as athletic director. At first, he knew the Utes were a mediocre or below team in a mid-major conference. Then they were a top mid-major with BCS bowl aspirations. After winning the Fiesta and Sugar bowls, they dared present themselves for Pac-12 consideration and in 2011 were admitted. Last year they reached the conference championship game.
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This won’t be easy. The conference had four schools ranked in the top 20 in recruiting, on Tuesday, according to 24/7 Sports: Oregon, Washington, Stanford and USC. Utah was No. 64 nationally. Lowly Indiana ranked 40th. Rutgers was three slots ahead of Utah, and that’s following a 1-11 season. The Mid-American Conference’s Toledo rated No. 65. Other teams whose recruiting supposedly outstripped Utah: Memphis, Illinois, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
Close behind Utah were Marshall, Louisiana and North Texas.
Are any of those better programs than Utah? No.
The top three teams rightfully were Alabama, Georgia and Texas. They do get their pick of five-star players. For the Utes, it’s more complicated. If your recruiting ranks in the 60s, for whatever reason, it’s not gospel. It’s all about the alchemy.