Utah-BYU: Recruiting paths for Utes, Cougars are diverging
By Lya Wodraska
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 16 2013 05:45PM
Standing on the sidelines watching the Utes warm up for their game against Oregon State, Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson is asked by a TV crew to show off the 1991 national championship ring he won while coaching Miami.
Erickson begrudgingly agrees, giving the camera a quick flash of the ring that signifies the pinnacle of college football he reached many years ago.
But for the Utah Utes, the flash is something else. It’s like a bright fishing lure tossed into a mountain stream to tantalize a potentially big catch.
The Utes hope Erickson’s reputation is bait enough to land some of the top national recruits in the country, the kind of four- to five-star, blue chip players who haven’t given the Utes much of a consideration in the past.
Utah has made headway in recent years to reach past its traditional recruiting areas, diving deeper into Texas and California, while getting fewer players from traditional hotbeds such as Hawaii.
Utah and BYU still compete for select in-state recruits and some West Coast prospects, but the Utes’ bigger recruiting rivals now are USC, UCLA and the rest of the Pac-12.
The shift has created an interesting aspect to the Utah-BYU rivalry: Utah’s quest to cast a wider net versus BYU’s tried-and-true recruitment of mostly players of the LDS faith, locally and nationally.
Which approach is better?
One could argue that Utah has the edge, given its three-game winning streak in the series. Ultimately, recruiting class success is best judged on the field, in wins and losses.
Yet it’s probably too soon to judge, given Utah’s short history in the Pac-12, with just two full recruiting seasons as a conference member.
One thing is certain, though, the two are going for the same recruits less and less.
The Utes and Cougars have only a handful of players who were recruited seriously by the other program. Among them are linebacker Pita Taumoepenu and cornerback Davion Orphey, who originally committed to BYU then landed at Utah this year.
BYU signed four players in February who also had offers from Utah, at least early in the recruiting period. Offensive linemen Brayden Kearsley, Keegan Hicks and JonRyheem Peoples and tight end Talon Shumway all ended up wearing BYU blue.
Perhaps the last notable crossover was Star Lotulelei, who committed to BYU out of high school, went to Snow College then signed with the Utes and became one of the best defensive linemen in the program’s history.
It now appears those battles for talent will be less frequent in the future.
"It’s almost like there are two different pools of players," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "There is not a lot of common ground."
He added that the trend of committing early also has led to less competition between the schools.
For BYU, the philosophy hasn’t changed much, according to recruiting coordinator Geoff Martzen.
The Cougars, who have commitments from three in-state players, still go after every Division I caliber LDS player throughout the country, then target non-LDS players who are "socially conservative," and comfortable adhering to the school’s honor code.
Scout.com" target="_blank">class="TEXT_w_Indent">Scout.com recruiting expert Brandon Huffman described BYU’s efforts as "solid."
"The 2010 class was as good a class on paper as BYU has ever had, but attrition has hurt that class," he said. "It seems like BYU has taken a different approach and really is finding better fits for the overall program and the school just as much with how they fit in the schemes. In the years past, it might have been more scheme and ignoring whether they fit that well with the school."
Utah’s challenge has been to alter its recruiting emphasis, without isolating the local talent. The last thing the Utes want is to build a reputation of a program that looks elsewhere first and at Utah players last — especially with the state’s growing reputation as a producer of Division I football talent.
To that end, Utah recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley is careful to describe the school’s recruiting philosophy.
"Utah is always a priority for us and we still want to go after the top LDS kids too," he said. "But we also have to compete with the Pac-12, with UCLA, USC and the others."
So far Utah has held true to its word. The Utes had 10 signees from Utah in 2012, and three in 2013. For their 2014 recruiting class, the Utes have commitments from six local players.
The Utes’ affiliation with the Pac-12 is as good of a sell in-state as it is elsewhere, Brighton High coach Ryan Bullett said.
"I think the Pac-12 is what Utah has over BYU right now," he said. "The kids are always talking about who Utah is playing. We have three commits to Utah in the last three years with more to come. The kids talk to me about being in a conference and getting awards and conference titles."
Utah is making its national push, too, as witnessed with recent recruiting visits with five players from Miami in town for the Oregon State game. They came, said cornerback Nigel Bethel II, out of curiosity and the prospect of playing with a program that has Erickson involved.
Bethel has committed to Miami, but just the fact he flew to Salt Lake City for a visit is taken as a positive sign for the Utes.
"Utah has definitely made major strides in the past couple of years, which coincides well with their move to the Pac-12 and being more visible on the West Coast," said Scout.com’s Huffman. "Travis Wilson was a player with Pac-12 offers and Utah hadn’t even played a game in the conference when he committed, largely because he liked Norm Chow and because the Utes were finally in the conference, guaranteeing a visit every year to Southern California."
The Utes believe their efforts are paying off. They have elevated their speed and talent at critical positions, even though they still have a long ways to go to get the necessary depth.
So, which approach is best? The lure of a major conference affiliation or religious connections?
It’s a question probably best answered on the field, on Saturday. And for seasons to come.
Reporter Jay Drew contributed to this story