The Rice-Eccles Stadium lights were shining and the video board was playing highlights last Saturday night, when the Utah football coaching staff made one last pitch to recruits.
The strategy worked with offensive linemen Sataoa Laumea, a southern California prospect whose announcement Wednesday was Utah’s biggest development as the NCAA’s early signing period began. Considered to be on his way to UCLA before choosing Utah, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Laumea also listed USC and California as finalists this week.
The Utes also lost a couple of recruits along the way, including one unnamed case that coach Kyle Whittingham cryptically said was “a very, very interesting story.”
With a low volume of seniors in 2018, Utah has signed 12 players in a small class that so far ranks 11th in the Pac-12, according to the 247 Sports scoring system. Based on the players' average ranking, though, Utah is in the middle of the conference.
Whittingham expects to add another six or seven signees in February. The Utes have commitments from California prep receiver Darren Jones, Garden City (Kan.) CC offensive tackle LaColby Tucker and Bingham High School linebacker Junior Tafuna, who for various reasons are waiting until February to sign. Other positions Whittingham cited include quarterback, running back, linebacker and defensive back.
Utah high school players such as Bingham linebacker Lolani Langi and defensive lineman Simote Pepa and Skyridge offensive lineman Logan Sagapolu “could make this an extremely solid class,” said Alex Markham, publisher of Ute Nation.com on the Rivals network.
The Utes lost top QB target Jaylen Daniels to Arizona State last week but are not desperate to sign anyone at the position with three scholarship quarterbacks in the program, Whittingham said.
Utah's scholarship numbers will vary when selected juniors such as running back Zack Moss make their decisions regarding the NFL draft. “We may well have nobody declare, but if you're putting percentages on it, probably a guy, maybe two” will depart, Whittingham said.
Laumea's signing was a breakthrough for Ute offensive line coach Jim Harding, whose position area was bolstered Wednesday by current high school players and a returning missionary, East High School graduate Johnny Maea. In addition to Laumea, Utah landed Marist Talavou, another offensive lineman from southern California. Falcon Kaumatule, a 6-8 athlete from Las Vegas, also is being listed as an offensive lineman, although he weighs only 232 pounds.
The Utes lost out to LSU in their limited hope of signing East defensive lineman Siaki Ika, who also visited the campus this month. And then Wednesday afternoon, Eastern Arizona College safety Quandre Mosely chose Kentucky over Utah and Oregon.
Utah returned to Australia to find another punter, Ben Lennon. His signing adds to Utah’s tradition of Australian punters with Tom Hackett, a two-time Ray Guy Award winner, and senior Mitch Wishnowsky, the 2016 winner and a three-time finalist. Lennon’s background includes four seasons of Australian rules football. He will have four seasons of eligibility at Utah, meaning the Utes could have an Aussie punter continuously from 2012-22.
“We hope this guy is right in line with the other two,” Whittingham said. “He needs to step right in and be the guy. The job is his.”
Utah's first announced recruits Wednesday included former Penn State linebacker Manny Bowen as a graduate transfer and three returned missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who originally signed with Utah in 2016: Keaton Bills, a defensive lineman from Corner Canyon High School; Semisi Lauaki, a defensive lineman from Hawthorne, Calif.; and Maea.
Utah had previously announced the acquisition of Bowen, a linebacker who started 21 games in three seasons for the Nittany Lions before sitting out the 2018 season. He’s expected to fill a vacancy left by Ute senior Cody Barton. Bowen will be on campus for spring practice.
UTAH’S EARLY SIGNEES
• Donte Banton, 6-0, 189; WR from Lauderhill, Fla. (Deerfield Beach High School).
• Keaton Bills, 6-4, 260; DL from Draper (Corner Canyon High School).
• Micah Bernard, 5-11, 188; RB from Long Beach, Calif. (Gahr High School).
• Manny Bowen, 6-2, 231; LB from Barnegat, N.J. (Penn State).
• Falcon Kaumatule, 6-8, 232; OL from Las Vegas, Nev. (Bishop Gorman High School).
• Semisi Lauaki, 6-2, 235; OL from Hawthorne, Calif. (Leuzinger High School).
• Sataoa Laumea, 6-5, 300; OL from Rialto, Calif. (Eisenhower High School).
• Ben Lennon, 6-2, 185; P from Viewbank, Australia (Swinburne University).
• Aaron Lowe, 6-0, 179; DB from Mesquite, Texas (West Mesquite High School).
• Johnny Maea, 6-4, 305; OL from Salt Lake City (East High School).
• LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson, 6-1, 161; DB from Phoenix, Ariz. (Mountain Pointe High School).
• Marist Talavou, 6-2, 230; OL from Norwalk, Calif. (St. John Bosco High School).