Kragthorpe: January's win now helping Utes' February

Published February 4, 2009 6:27 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Barry Switzer hardly was being nice when talking before the Sugar Bowl about how Alabama would not settle for the kind of players Utah recruits, but everything he said was actually a compliment to the Utes.

There's obviously a disconnect between ranked No. 54 in recruiting -- even with the Sugar Bowl's immediate impact -- and No. 2 in the final poll, but there's also an explanation. Coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff have done a nice job of recruiting players in recent years, and an even better job of developing them.

Switzer is absolutely correct in believing that somebody like Utah could never beat Alabama in February, but the Utes looked awfully good in January, didn't they?

The players Utah signs are often underrated when they arrive, but they're also not as good as they're going to be, judging by a 13-0 season and that convincing victory over Alabama. So whatever grades the Utes are receiving for the 2009 recruiting class announced Wednesday, this is just the starting point.

The Utes' formula is to recruit, develop and manage players, and it seems to be working.

As usual, the national signing day is both encouraging and sobering for a program like Utah's. Whittingham delivered the highest-ranked group in his five years, yet the Utes were barely judged in the top half of the Football Bowl Subdivision. They lost a few players to UCLA, including Timpview offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo, who must have missed the Bruins' appearance in his hometown last September: a 59-0 loss to BYU.

The Utes are who they are, nationally speaking, with recruiting analyst Brandon Huffman of Scout.com praising them for merely contending for certain players, illustrating how "respected" they are becoming.

The Utes did make some breakthroughs. Highland defensive lineman Latu Heimuli was involved with the likes of Florida and Nebraska before Utah assistant coach Jay Hill pursued him heavily and kept him home. Signing selected other players meant beating some "heavy hitters," according to Whittingham.

Yet the coach also acknowledged Utah's position in the recruiting chain, observing, "Some schools . . . don't recruit; they just choose. We're not in that category right now. We work our tail off to get them signed."

Utah's staff also excels in projecting players' abilities two or three years from today, and succeeds in moving them to positions that best suit them, as the stories of Morgan Scalley, Paul Kruger, Sean Smith and others show.

The Utes also keep getting faster and more athletic, as the Crimson Tide may have noticed. And while the Sugar Bowl showcase did not suddenly make any national-level recruits suddenly call the Utes and sign up, even Whittingham was surprised by the "mass of interest" generated by Utah's performance in New Orleans.

It also resulted in "literally hundreds of applications" for Utah's coaching vacancies, Whittingham said, and undoubtedly will help in the 2010 recruiting cycle that is already under way, as accelerated as the process has become in recent years.

And in contrast to four years ago, when opposing coaches were telling recruits that Utah's success was a one-time phenomenon, a product of Urban Meyer's magic touch that could never be duplicated, Whittingham has something to show everybody. And he's still here. "Now, there's some continuity," he said. "Now, they understand we're for real."

So the Utes keep recruiting well -- of course, as Whittingham said at his signing-day news conference, "We've never come up here and said, 'We stink' " -- and they will continue to take the players they get and make them better.

kkragthorpe@ sltrib.com

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