Utah football: Utes' recruiting improved but enough?
When the University of Utah joined the Pac-12, the football program seemed to have everything going for it. The Utes had two BCS wins, a bowl winning streak, and assistant coaches who seemed to be on every school's hot list when job openings came up.
But that was then. The Utes are coming off two straight losing seasons. They once again missed qualifying for a bowl game in 2013, and save the stunning upset of Stanford, have had precious little presence on the national radar.
After three tough seasons in the Pac-12, has Utah's sizzle fizzled?
No, say those in the program.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham insists that, even while the program has struggled through consecutive 5-7 seasons, the Utes' overall talent level is increasing.
"Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program," Whittingham said. "And with every recruiting class you get incrementally better."
The question, though, is, have the Utes recruited well enough to make a leap in the conference standings? They might get incrementally better, but doesn't every program? How are the Utes going to get an edge now that the Pac-12 hoopla has died down?
Utah's coaches have spoken often how competitive recruiting in the Pac-12 is compared to the Mountain West. Back in the MW days, the Utes sought out the so-called diamonds in the rough, the ones overlooked by major programs, and turned them into NFL talent.
Players who fit that mold included linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, safety Eric Weddle, quarterback Alex Smith and cornerback Sean Smith, just to name a few.
But life is different in the Pac-12. Now when the Utes offer a scholarship to a player, and other schools start paying attention and might decide that player suddenly fits their needs as well.
Such cherry-picking is normal in recruiting and the Utes certainly don't pretend to be above such practices either, but battling a team like Wyoming for a recruit is a whole different world than battling USC or UCLA.
"You've got to stay on recruits right until the end," Utah assistant coach Dennis Erickson said. "Recruiting is all about building connections with them so you have that going for you."
While the lack of depth was evident this year, with a noticeable drop-off in talent at the skill positions, the Utes believe they are making progress.
Coaches can't comment on recruits directly, but Whittingham said in general he felt his staff is addressing the team's most pressing needs.
The Utes don't have recent bowl appearances, winning streaks or other traditional measurements of success to sell the program. But Whittingham believes Utah's new football facility stands as a symbol of a promising future for the Utes.
"We are doing anything we can to make us better and the facility is a big part of that," he said.
Brandon Huffman, Scout.com's regional manager, said the Utes' win over Stanford could have more of an impact than some might think.
"Their coaches will be highlighting their win over Stanford with recruits on the fence because that's an alpha dog in the West in recruiting and Utah ruined their chances at a potential national title spot," he said. "So while the Sugar Bowl win may no longer be fresh in their mind, the new recruits and prospects have the Stanford win on the forefront."
If recruiting is the lifeblood of a program, then a true indication of just where the Utes stand could be how the final weeks play out before signing day on Feb. 5.
The Utes are going up against several Pac-12 schools for some coveted players. Among them are Tre Watson, a running back out of Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., who has committed to Cal but is considering the Utes; his teammate Barry Ware, a receiver who has opened up recruiting again after committing to UCLA, and safety Koa Farmer, another Cal commit from Notre Dame H.S. in Sherman Oaks, Calif., who recently visited Utah.
Watson, who has visits planned to Cal and UCLA remaining, has forged a close relationship with Erickson and said he isn't bothered by Utah's lack of success.
"I don't pay attention to the record," he said. "My goal is to go in and help turn their season around."
Others, like Ware, see Utah as an opportunity to step in and make an immediate impact.
"If I choose to go there, my plan is to help contribute to a bowl game," Ware said.
The Utes are also recruiting more in Florida, where Erickson has connections and was able to lure Andre Godfrey, a 5-foot-10 safety out of Miramar, Fla., to commit to the Utes this week.
The Utes also remain in the running for DJ Law, a defensive back in Haines City, Fla., who is also being recruited by Tennessee.
If the Utes can land a few of those players, they might be able to turn a decent class into a very good one.
They'll have to do that to get up to speed with the Pac-12 South's top tier. Otherwise the Utes could become the next Washington, a team that has been mired a series of mediocre, break-even seasons in conference play.
Every year, it seems, the Huskies are poised to break through, but the big payoff has been slow in coming. The Huskies have gone just 5-4 in each of the last three seasons.
Veteran Seattle Times reporter Bud Withers, who has covered Pac-12 teams for the last 40 years, believes the league is more competitive than ever, making it difficult for teams like Washington and Utah to gain a foothold.
"This last [season] exemplified how hard the league was," he said of Washington's season. "They were close to being a very good team, but when it was all said and done, 5-4 again."
That probably sounds familiar to Utah fans after those consecutive 5-7 finishes, but Whittingham says he is determined to not let his team slip into a similar pattern.
"I don't put a timetable on things, but we are doing everything we can," he said. "We are getting better."
Utah first three years of football in the Pac-12:
Year Overall Pac-12
2011 8-5 4-5
2012 5-7 3-6
2013 5-7 2-7