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Thanks to a one-year NCAA waiver, this Utah football recruiting class will be unlike any other

Utes currently have nine commitments from the class of 2022 with the early signing period set to begin on Dec. 15.

(Gary Kazanjian | Special to The Tribune) Clovis High School quarterback Nate Johnson works out with his team at Clovis High School, who committed to play for the University of Utah, shown Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Clovis, Calif.

By the time Kyle Whittingham and his coaching staff are done recruiting for the current cycle, they will have cobbled together a class under unprecedented conditions.

With the early signing period for Division I football beginning Dec. 15, the University of Utah has nine verbal commitments from the class of 2022. Among those commitments are two four-star recruits, Clovis (Calif.) High School quarterback Nate Johnson and Brighton High School linebacker Lander Barton, whose family is Utes royalty. (Barton’s older brothers, Jackson and Cody, both played for Whittingham and are currently in the NFL, while his older sister, Dani, is an All-American outside hitter on the volleyball team.)

Whittingham may score more commitments before Dec. 15, but for now, let’s assume that the nine recruits who are committed sign National Letters of Intent during the early signing period, which runs through Dec. 17.

In a normal year, programs are allowed to sign up to 25 new players, who are termed “initial counters,” whether they be from high school, junior college or out of the NCAA Transfer Portal. For this cycle, with the portal burgeoning and becoming a bigger factor in the college football landscape, the NCAA has approved a one-year waiver that will allow Utah and everyone else to sign up to 32 new players, but there are stipulations.

Schools can sign 25 new players, while gaining additional space for each player who transfers out, with a limit of seven spaces. Schools can only replace those who enter the transfer portal, not those who leave school early for the NFL Draft.

Using Utah as an example, Whittingham cannot replace Devin Lloyd’s roster spot once the All-American linebacker declares for the NFL Draft, but Whittingham can replace up to seven Utes if that many enter the transfer portal. If 10 Utes transfer out, Utah is still capped at 32 “initial counters.”

“That’s a big help, and I thought it was a great move by the NCAA to do that,” Whittingham said. “You still have to balance it. There’s no doubt that the basis of our recruiting and the place where we recruit the most is the high school athlete. That’s not going to change. I don’t see that changing, but it’s been supplemented by the portal.”

As the transfer portal has risen in relevancy, the meat and potatoes of Whittingham’s recruiting efforts still reside at high schools. Specifically, under-recruited high school players Utah identifies and coaches up across a period of years, turning many of them into productive players or, in some cases, NFL players.

That said, how Whittingham finds a balance between high school players and transfer portal players will be an ongoing point of interest because, frankly, he has hit paydirt in the portal.

Cam Rising (Texas), TJ Pledger (Oklahoma), Dalton Kincaid (FCS San Diego), Nephi Sewell (Nevada), and Brandon McKinney (Washington) offer a sampling of the guys who have worked out for Utah from the transfer portal. Furthermore, Tavion Thomas was a late, post-spring practice commitment out of Independence Community College. His 851 rushing yards, 143 carries and 17 touchdowns are all team-bests.

Whatever balance he seeks to strike, Whittingham knows patience will need to be a big part of it.

Utah will sign its initial wave of early commitments on Dec. 15, whether that be nine or more. From there, multiple Utes are expected to declare for the NFL Draft and, given the nature of college football, natural attrition is likely to see more Utes leave. There is the regular signing period beginning on Feb. 2, and in the middle of it all, the transfer portal will constantly be something Whittingham and his staff will keep an eye on.

With the regular season winding down, the transfer portal is heating up, but that will only increase in the month of December and beyond. There will be a wave of portal entrants then, and still another after spring practice as depth across programs comes into better focus.

As a point of reference, Utah signed 18 recruits on the first day of the early signing period in 2020. It ultimately wound up with 16 high school recruits, eight more from the transfer portal, plus Thomas to hit the “initial counter” limit of 25.

“We’ve got 32 slots outlined right now in the event we’re able to get to that,” Whittingham said. “So much of that depends on who leaves your program, and right now is not the time to address that with your players, but I’m sure there is going to be some attrition.

“We have 32 slotted, we have them allocated across the board position-by-position. If we end up with not that many, then we’ll adjust accordingly, but it’s going to be a different strategy this year, for certain. In my estimation, you don’t want to fill up at that first signing date with high school players because you may need half a dozen transfers to fill some holes down the road.”

One thing to consider here is the fact that Utah is playing in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 3. That means the coaching staff will be in the middle of a game week. If the Utes were not playing in the title game, the staff would be recruiting as the FBS recruiting calendar will be in a contact period from Nov. 28-Dec. 11. A contact period is defined as “a period of time when it is permissible for authorized athletics department staff members to make in-person, off-campus recruiting contacts and evaluations.”

“It’s definitely worth the tradeoff,” Whittingham said. “Being in the championship game absolutely outweighs losing some time in recruiting. The best thing you can do for recruiting is win. Yes, we’re going to miss out on four or five days of evaluations and contacts, but it’s well worth the tradeoff. We’ll take that scenario every single year.”

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