Gordon Monson: Utah football has mastered two most important things, the second leading to more success at the first

Yes, the Utes have recruited talent in recent years — but they’ve excelled at developing it

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes defeated the Oregon Ducks to win the 2021 Pac12 Football Championship title at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Dec 3, 2021.

Nobody has to be any kind of football polymath to understand that the two most important factors contributing to the success of a college program are 1) recruiting, which has been on the minds of everyone this signing week, and 2) player development, which is always on everyone’s mind, year-round.

Kyle Whittingham circles and underscores and stars the first emphasis anytime anyone gives him credit for what Utah football has accomplished through the years, and that’s a credit and compliment to him for sitting himself in the backseat and giving a proper nod to the players upfront and their talent. Some head coaches shout about their own greatness. It’s clear the Utes have gotten stronger and stronger in drawing in the kind of athletes capable of making them one of the elite teams in the Pac-12.

But the second should be noted and highlighted, as well.

What Utah has done in coaching up its guys, in putting them in the right positions and helping them hone their craft inside those positions, is illustrated not just in the number of players the Utes send to the NFL, but also in the advancement made within the program, season to season. A collective view of each of those in past years has made that clear.

The Utes are good at it.

Focusing on this season alone, look at the athletes who have at least a shot at the next level. And consider how they were viewed coming out of high school. Most of them were respected, but most of them have furthered their standing under Whittingham’s guidance.

Accolades to them for their dedication and diligence, but … some assistant coach somewhere, some assistant coaches, educated and instructed, encouraged and tutored them in making the considerable leap from prep ball to the college game, and from there, enabling them in some cases to attract the attention of grizzled folks who evaluate potential pro talent for a living.

Those scouts are sometimes mistaken, rarely getting everything right or getting completely fooled, but, either way, they typically aren’t prone to getting caught up in the hype and hullaballoo presented by so many college football observers. Which is to say, they’re a tough lot and they are not easily impressed.

But Utah players do make an impression.

Already, linebacker Devin Lloyd and return specialist Britain Covey, running back TJ Pledger and tight end Cole Fotheringham have revealed that they will make themselves available to the NFL. Other Utes, such as center Nick Ford and tight end Brant Kuithe and running back Tavion Thomas, among others, could dance down that same path.


Let’s examine just those players as examples of prospect growth within the Eccles Football Complex.

Lloyd came to Utah after being recruited by such college football luminaries as UNLV and San Jose State. He actually verbally committed to the Rebels before figuring he might be able to do a tad bit better. He was thrilled when Utah coaches showed up at one of his high school basketball games and subsequently made him an offer.

“I was happy about that,” Lloyd said.

He should have been. There were 1,644 athletes who were compositely ranked ahead of him entering college. Amazing to think about now.

At Utah, the linebacker progressed by way of a redshirt year, and then proper training by coaches. He transformed himself from a borderline athlete — at least in the minds of some recruiters — into an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick.

What a season he had and what a future he has.

Stuff like that doesn’t just happen. People make it happen, and Lloyd wasn’t the only one doing the grunt work. That’s worth appreciating — all those quiet days and nights when there are no loudspeakers blaring or spotlights shining on a player and his coaches, no crowds cheering, as they humbly work out plans for daily schedules for improvement, while they do the work in the weight room and in film study. All while, at least initially, the more glorious attention is being paid to other players farther up the two-deep charts.

That process continues, even after an athlete emerges as a starter. Pushing and pushing. For players like Lloyd, the status quo isn’t enough. They want and are willing to reach for more — and Utah’s assistant coaches are not only happy to help, they have the acumen and wherewithal to achieve what every coach’s top priority should be — to match his players’ uppermost abilities with their results on the field.

When the Utes won the Pac-12 championship, that was an assertion Whittingham brightly marked, saying that his coaching staff is one of the best in the country.

He might be right.

The diminutive Covey was a terrific high school quarterback, coming out of Timpview High, but some recruiters weren’t that enthralled with him, considering his size, 5-9, 170. That was a stupid way of thinking. Utah’s coaches did not think that way. They grabbed the quick, shifty athlete and made him a featured part of their success — at receiver and on special teams. He was a three-star recruit who was ranked overall nationally at 1,677.

Fotheringham was a three-star prospect out of San Clemente High and Ford, a three-star from San Pedro High, who did their business at Utah, Ford anchoring the offensive line and Fotheringham emerging as one of a number of useful tight ends who Whittingham called the best group in the country. Fotheringham believes he is ready to move to the pros, Ford will decide later.

Pledger came to Utah from Oklahoma, where he struggled for playing time over his first two years and gained 451 yards during his third year before transferring to Utah, where he ran for 671 yards.

He might have gained more were it not for Thomas, who bounced from Cincinnati to Independence Community College before landing at Utah. Once he overcame a tendency to handle the ball as though he were wearing boxing gloves, Thomas blew up for 20 rushing touchdowns this season, earning All-Pac-12 first-team honors. Thomas is a star at the FBS level and a blossoming pro prospect.

Kuithe, also a three-star recruit, out of Texas, has played far beyond that at Utah, as a three-time all-Pac-12 second-team tight end, a receiver that every defense lining up against the Utes has keyed on as significant to cover.

And that’s just the beginning. There are others among the Utes, formative NFL players, all of them in varying stages of readiness.

Whether they make themselves available for the pros this season or at some future time, take note of these players who annually arrive at Utah as this and when they’re done they are a whole lot more of that. All of them were/are good in the prep ranks, and then …

And then, as Utes they became, become, if not great, a whole lot better.

The beauty to the benefits for Utah of the No. 2 factor is that it improves the prospects for Ute success at the No. 1 thing.

And, to that, Utah football is proof.