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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham as the University of Utah faces Arizona State in Tempe on Sept. 22, 2012.
Kragthorpe: Utes’ Whittingham invites questions about coaching

Utah’s Whittingham may be paying price for having an inexperienced staff.

First Published Sep 24 2012 02:51 pm • Last Updated Jan 07 2013 11:31 pm

The word falls somewhere between a trite expression and an admirable level of accountability.

Yet, if Kyle Whittingham keeps saying after defeats that his Utah Utes are being "outcoached," he’s risking the eventuality of having everybody believe him.

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In the wake of Saturday’s 37-7 loss at Arizona State and in advance of No. 13 USC’s visit next week, questions again have to be asked about Whittingham’s unconventional staff composition. None of his nine assistants previously coached at another school in a power conference.

During spring practice, Whittingham sounded very satisfied, characterizing the group as "high energy, great chemistry, no egos."

Now that the Utes (2-2) rank 112th in total offense among 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision and 71st in pass efficiency defense, the issue of how he filled two vacancies warrants further evaluation. The Utes have appeared unprepared in losses to Utah State and ASU, and that comes back to Whittingham’s staffing strategy.

This staff is well-designed for recruiting success in February, which ultimately is what wins in college football and may make Utah a genuine Pac-12 contender in the years to come. But if there’s to be anything redeemable about the 2012 season, the Utes need improvement in October.

When offensive coordinator Norm Chow became Hawaii’s coach and line coach Tim Davis moved to Florida, Whittingham defied any traditional approach of finding experienced replacements. He promoted Brian Johnson to coordinator, switched Jay Hill from defense to offense, brought in offensive line coach Dan Finn from San Diego State and hired cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, who was working as a trial lawyer and radio sideline reporter.

During his weekly news conference Monday, Whittingham spoke of a running game that lacks "any sort of consistency" (the domain of Finn and Hill), cited "disoriented" coverage in the secondary with "too many blown assignments" (including Shah’s cornerbacks) and agreed the Utes should have passed more after quickly falling behind (Johnson’s play-calling).

Asked about his new coaches, Whittingham endorsed their work ethic and said, "There’s a learning curve. … We have to be willing to go through those growing pains."

He also asked in return, "Are we a better football team than [ASU]? That’s a tough call."


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Certainly, personnel issues contributed to the 30-point loss. The offensive line includes a true freshman, Jeremiah Poutasi, at right tackle — the position formerly occupied by Tony Bergstrom, now with the Oakland Raiders. Free safety Eric Rowe’s absence due to injury undoubtedly made cornerback Moe Lee, who was benched, and the rest of the secondary look worse Saturday. And the Utes again are using quarterback Jon Hays, who’s improved but has a talent ceiling as an original Division II signee.

In Johnson’s defense, his offense’s ranking is only three spots below where the Utes finished last season, even with Chow’s renowned play-calling ability. Then again, subtracting the season opener against Northern Colorado, the Utes are averaging 259.9 total yards against their three FBS opponents, which would put them closer to the bottom.

One game into their second Pac-12 season, the Utes are 4-6 lifetime in this league. They’re 12-10 overall since early November of 2010, when they were ranked No. 6. Since upsetting Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in January 2009, they’ve beaten only two Top 25 opponents, by three points each — Pittsburgh in a 2010 opener and BYU this month.

All of that recent history is why the Ute coaches need to recharge the program with a strong performance Oct. 4. Recruiting can’t help them right now. This staff can coach only its current players against USC.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt



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