Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks with members of the media after their spring training at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 4, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — It is late Thursday afternoon, cool turning to cold, but Kyle Whittingham pays no attention. Another spring camp is afoot, and the longtime Ute football coach is all warmed up.

A sprinkling of rain dapples the practice field. What does he care? There’s no such thing as an ugly football day in Whittingham’s book — unless it includes a defensive breakdown. Too bad for him that’s exactly what happened in the Holiday Bowl.

Nevertheless, the Utes are getting strong preseason respect. Football guru Brett McMurphy has them ranked 10th nationally in his preseason poll. CBS Sports, Bleacher Report and SI.com rate the Utes No. 15, while Athlon has them at No. 16 and 247 Sports and ESPN at No. 18.

Whether the preseason love helps Whittingham’s sense of security is debatable. Anecdotally, his teams do better working incognito. He has tied or exceeded expectations in six of his eight seasons in the Pac-12. Utah has never been picked to win the South in the preseason media poll. Look for that to change this summer when the conference media day rolls around.

Regardless, here’s some fair advice on beating the Utes: catch them on a year they are supposed to be strong. This one, for example. They don’t have Oregon or Stanford on their schedule. USC is a hot mess and Washington is remodeling. The Sporting News, Athlon, 247Sport, the San Jose Mercury News and others have the Utes winning the South Division. As Mercury News writer Jon Wilner notes, “All those years without a South title, and now the Utes are in prime position to be the first team to win two in a row.”

In 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2016, Utah finished where it was projected. The 2015 Utes were supposed to finish fifth, but they tied for first, and in 2018 they were picked second and finished first. The meltdowns — which render lofty predictions silly — came in 2012 and 2017 when they finished fifth, after being projected second.

Whittingham downplays outside expectations, which makes the 2019 season a bit uncomfortable for him. This year’s Utes are as stealthy as a backhoe. They have two starting quarterbacks and a starting-level transfer from Texas. They also have a quality linebacker in Francis Bernard, as well as Penn State transfer Manny Bowen. The lineup next fall will include a fleet receiving corps, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, three top-shelf defensive backs and two All-America candidates on the defensive line.

Oh, and they have the elusive Britain Covey, who could maneuver his way out of a straightjacket, Houdini-style.

Just don’t ask Whittingham to make predictions.

“I ignore it. I ignore it,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We were pretty average today ... we tune it out.”

Whittingham started the week off bodaciously, when it was announced he had received a contract extension that will take him through the 2023 season, at roughly $4 million a year.

His response?

He mostly squints his football squint.

In spite of a December loss that erased his claim as the highest-percentage bowl coach in history, he remains popular with both fans and administrators. He has been Utah’s head coach 14 seasons, tied for third-longest tenure in the country.

For a coach who has a 34-38 Pac-12 record, a contract extension is a bold vote of confidence.

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Whittingham has posted winning records in 12 of his 14 seasons, and last year reached the conference championship game for the first time. Meanwhile, he has won eight straight games against BYU. The opener, against BYU, is five months away. Three weeks after that, they open conference play at USC. With his team’s depth, and a new contract, there’s no reason he shouldn’t win the South and challenge for the Rose Bowl.

Hype? What hype?

“That’s something I think this team has done a good job with, through the years — of not paying attention to the outside noise and just trying to take care of our business,” he says.

He clearly doesn’t love the buzz. But he understands when it comes to hype, Joe Louis was right: You can run, but you can’t hide.