Utah's football program is keeping prime prospects within the state like never before and the Utes' newest quarterback is becoming even more important.
That's the initial summary of a December signing period that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hopes will get even better Thursday and Friday.
The Utes have landed five of the state’s top six players, by Whittingham’s account, losing only Orem five-star linebacker Noah Sewell to Oregon. They initially secured Corner Canyon defensive end Van Fillinger, Viewmont offensive lineman Alex Harrison, Lone Peak safety Nate Ritchie and Bingham linebacker Sione Fotu. That left one more target, Juan Diego defensive lineman Xavier Carlton, who announced his choice of Utah on Thursday morning.
Utah’s landing quarterback Jake Bentley as a graduate transfer from South Carolina is proving to be vital, with senior Tyler Huntley departing after the Alamo Bowl and former fill-in starter Jason Shelley likely moving to the secondary, Whittingham said during a news conference Wednesday.
“You don't want to get caught with your pants down at quarterback,” Whittingham said, explaining the value of Bentley as “a guy with some experience.”
In an apparent reference to his position move, Shelley tweeted, “Surprise!”
Before his would-be senior year was derailed by a foot injury in the season opener, Bentley started 33 games in the Southeastern Conference. Vanderbilt, where Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig formerly worked, opposed the Gamecocks in the SEC East. Ludwig “really loved him,” Whittingham said.
Bentley will compete in spring practice with Texas transfer Cameron Rising. Drew Lisk also will be in the mix, if he stays with football after earning his degree in May. Beyond the news of Shelley’s potential move to defense, the biggest quarterbacking twist Wednesday was Baylor transfer Peyton Powell’s moving to Rutgers of the Big Ten, rather than Utah.
Defensively, the Utes will factor into the national picture Thursday, when California cornerback Clark Phillips III makes his choice. Phillips has committed to Ohio State, but visited Utah last weekend.
The players who waited until Wednesday to make announcements all favored Utah, including Connor O'Toole, a receiver/tight end from Albuquerque, N.M.
The Utes' in-state success stemmed from the value of Pac-12 membership and “just our brand growing,” Whittingham said.
Whittingham described Harrison as a ”ready-made” lineman, while Fotu is physical, very instinctive, very productive.”
With openings in Utah's secondary, Ritchie “fills an immediate need” at safety, Whittingham said, and Fillinger, who originally committed to Texas, “fell in love with us in the last part of the recruiting period.”
Fillinger reopened his recruitment after Texas, the Utes' Alamo Bowl opponent, fired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
The Utes also signed running back Ty Jordan, who once was pledged to Texas.
Of the Utes’ 18 signees so far, five are returning missionaries, counting in the current recruiting class: Jaren Jump, Hunter Lotulelei, Aliki Vimahi and cousins Taniela and Tennessee Pututau.
• Jake Bentley, 6-4, 220, QB; from Lexington, S.C. (South Carolina)
• Graham Faloona, 6-3, 201, LB; from Southlake, Texas (Carroll HS).
• Van Fillinger, 6-4, 248, DL; from Draper (Corner Canyon HS).
• Sione Fotu, 6-0, 220, LB; from West Jordan (Bingham HS).
• Alex Harrison, 6-4, 333, OL; from Bountiful (Viewmont HS).
• Ty Jordan, 5-7, 192, RB; from Mesquite, Texas (West Mesquite HS).
• Jaren Kump, 6-5, 266, OL; from Riverton (Herrriman HS).
• Kamo'i Latu, 6-1, 185, DB; from Honolulu, Hawaii (St. Louis HS).
• Hunter Lotulelei, 6-3, 322, OL; from West Valley City (Highland HS).
• Connor O’Toole, 6-4, 207, WR; from Albuquerque, N.M. (La Cueva HS).
• Money Parks, 5-10, 164, WR; from Aledo, Texas (Aledo HS).
• Taniela Pututau, 6-3, 228, DL; from Salt Lake City (Cottonwood HS).
• Tennessee Pututau, 6-2, 260, DL; from Salt Lake City (East HS).
• Ben Renfro, 6-1, 187, DB; from Magnolia, Texas (Magnolia HS).
• Nate Ritchie, 6-2, 200, DB; from Cedar Hills (Lone Peak HS).
• Caine Savage, 5-11, 170, DB; from Buena Park, Calif. (Western HS).
• Aliki Vimahi, 6-4, 247, DL; from Kahuku, Hawaii (Kahuku HS).
• Tyler Wegis, 6-7, 200, DL; from Ladera Ranch, Calif. (San Juan Hills HS).