Kalani Sitake summarized the approach and the attitude of Utah’s football players and coaches in spring practices by drilling straight into their cores as grown men, as competitors, to see what reserves and resolve might lie within.
He played the respect card.
He did not point his finger at others on the outside for dismissive disrespect of Utah football as much as he directed the responsibility for gaining good renown back on the guys in red. And he reflected on the past to set the tone for the present and the future.
"We want to win games," he said. "And gain some respect in the Pac-12. The feeling around here is like it used to be back in the day when our team was trying to gain respect, BCS busters and all of that. Now, we want to do the same in the Pac-12, earn respect. It’s a good feeling to have players with a chip on their shoulders, with something to prove. We’re all on the same page here as far as trying to earn our respect, trying to break through in the Pac-12. That’s the coaches and the players."
Over the past two seasons combined, the Utes have won just five games in their league and 10 games overall. The offense has been a jumbled mess and the defense has lost some of the hard edge that once made it formidable. In the thump and bump of facing stronger foes week after week after week, a modest standard of qualifying for a bowl game has eluded them the past two years.
That failing has hurt the program beyond just perception from the outside and self-esteem on the inside. It’s created a disadvantage for Utah by way of missing out on additional practices, practices during which not only current starters could have sharpened their skills, but underlings could have made progress toward replacing the guys who were leaving.
Now, Sitake said, the Utes are attempting to cram all of that progression into spring ball, making up for lost time, all as they install a new version of their offense under another new offensive coordinator and they try to recapture the defensive aura of years gone by.
"There’s a lot more urgency to get a lot more done," he said. "We have to do it all right now. The only way to fix that is to win games and get to a bowl game. That’s our goal. We want to get better as a team and get better as a defense. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to utilize all the practice time, put on the pads, and we’re going to hit and get better. For us, you’re going to have to hit and fight and claw and compete with each other. That only happens when you take the field and take it serious."
Sitake was dead serious.
"There’s a lot more emphasis on us getting better every practice because … we have to," he said.
The longtime defensive coordinator made no mention of the coaches coaching for their jobs, but it seemed implied. Maybe in this business, it’s always implied. Those are the realities of big-money college football, where three straight losing seasons, if it were to happen in this case, often result in somebody, or somebodies, paying the price, no matter how much respect was earned back in the day.
The good news, according to Sitake, is that the Utes are edging forward.
"We’ve made," he said, "a lot of improvement."
The defense is showing promise in the early going with the addition of Brian Blechen, who was injured last season, and Gionni Paul, a talented linebacker who transferred in from Miami and sat out last season, and the return of Nate Orchard.
Blechen, Sitake said, "is 100 percent healthy and doing really well. The guy makes plays. You can’t deny the fact that when he’s on the field, he has an impact. He’s a resource, another coach on the field, understanding our scheme and what we demand from our players and being an example to the young guys, as far as, hey, this is how they want it, being another voice for us. His playmaking ability is one thing I’m excited about."
He praised Paul for his conscientiousness since arriving at Utah: "When you see a guy who has so much talent working hard, it encourages [everyone else] to do the same thing. … He’s so excited to be here."
The offense, the cause of so much disappointment — and demotion on the coaching staff — in recent years, Sitake said, is emerging.
"[Offensive coordinator] Dave Christensen is doing a great job getting the offense ready," he said. "They have a lot of talent, a lot of great players on that side."
If all that sounds like Kalani Sitake is desperately blowing sunshine and happy gas in every direction as spring ramps up, he still stresses down at a very basic ground level what’s dauntingly real for the Utes: "We’ve got to win. We’re focused on getting these guys to a bowl game. We’re focused on getting some respect in the Pac-12."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.
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