You’re not likely to spot Utah coach Kyle Whittingham traipsing around Utah’s football complex sporting a 10-gallon hat or in cowboy boots with spurs, but he does hold a great appreciation for the state of Texas.
The Utes will play West Virginia in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl on Tuesday in the Cotton Bowl, approximately 1,240 miles from Salt Lake City, but the Lone Star State is hardly unfamiliar territory.
“When I became the head coach, I knew how fertile that area was in Texas,” Whittingham said. “We had never really made it a primary area. It was always a secondary area for us in the years prior to me becoming the head coach. That’s fine, too. We had great success in California and in-state, obviously, in Utah. I’m not saying that that was a mistake, but when I became the head coach, we made it a priority to recruit Texas.”
The Utes came into this season with 10 players from Texas on their roster, the third-most of any current Utes from one state behind Utah and California. The Utes also received a letter of intent from offensive lineman Braeden Daniels out of Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas, this week.
While Texas has a history of producing elite college football players, 12 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, including Power 5 teams Baylor, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, sit inside the state’s borders.
“I actually didn’t know anything, really, about [Utah] except that one year that they went to the Sugar Bowl,” said Utah freshman quarterback Jason Shelley of Little Elm and Lone Star High School. “That was about it. Then they started recruiting me, and then I started to keep my eye out.
“Honestly, after I committed I started noticing a lot of Utah fans. But I don’t think athletes in general know about Utah. It’ll be nice to go out there and expose the Utah culture to some of the guys out there.”
The Utes roster included 18 players from Texas in 2013. The undefeated team in 2008, which finished with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, featured nine Texans, including star quarterback Brian Johnson.
HEART OF DALLAS BOWL
Utah vs. West Virginia
When • Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. MST
TV • ESPN
Junior Raelon Singleton, the Utes’ second-leading receiver this season, is Johnson’s cousin. Singleton, a Crosby resident, grew up watching Utah games on TV when Johnson played. Johnson having gone to Utah made the recruiting process “easier” for Singleton because he trusted Johnson’s advice.
“It’s just like Florida,” Singleton said. “Everybody wants to go to Florida State, Florida. In Texas, they want to go to Texas, Texas A&M. I still feel like we can compete with any of those teams. We can beat most of those teams, I think [we can beat] all of those teams. That’s just how I am. They’ll never look at it that way just because it’s Utah, but I feel like in recruiting it’s getting better. We’re getting better players every year, better talent. So I feel like we’re doing something right.”
Utes wide receivers coach Guy Holliday has spearheaded recruiting in Texas in recent years. He played a key role in recruiting Shelley, one of the top-rated dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation last year.
Whittingham credited a lot of the early success in Texas to defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who was assigned the state when Whittingham made the state a primary recruiting focus. Scalley still recruits in Texas and landed junior defensive back Corrion Ballard from Houston and safety Josh Nurse from Blinn Junior College.
“Really, it’s all about fostering relationships,” Scalley said. “Early on, it’s just beating the bushes and making sure the coaches see your face and know your name. Then from there, it’s just how hard you work to foster those relationships. You go down there every year. The coaches get to know you. They’re familiar with your work ethic.”
While the Utes may never be a household brand the likes of Texas or Texas A&M in the state, Scalley has seen the dynamics evolve since he first started.
“It has changed in the sense that now coaches will call me just because they’ve gotten to know me,” Scalley said. “They’ve gotten to know Guy Holliday. Guy has a great relationship with the coaches in the Dallas area. But now they’re calling me and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a guy,’ as opposed to me having to go to the school year in and year out. Now the coaches will call me before I even come out.”
TEXAS FLAVOR FOR UTES
Utah players from Texas
Name • year • position • hometown
Corrion Ballard • Junior • Safety • Houston
Bronson Boyd • Freshman • Wide receiver • Arlington
Jaylen Dixon • Freshman • Wide receiver • Frisco
Kyle Fulks • Senior • Wide receiver • Katy
Tyquez Hampton • Freshman • Wide receiver • El Paso
Nygel King • Freshman • Defensive back • Tomball
Troy McCormick • Senior • Running back • Katy
Jason Shelley • Freshman • Quarterback • Little Elm
Raelon Singleton • Junior • Wide receiver • Crosby
Salesi Uhatafe • Senior • Guard • Euless