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Utah Utes mailbag: What should Kyle Whittingham be prioritizing in the transfer portal?

Plus: Predicting the Pac-12 South, Wilguens Exacte Jr., breakfast with the Pope, and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham looks at the clock as time winds down as the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the Utah Utes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

We are moving into the college football offseason. Well, it’s never really the “offseason” because there is always something going on. Those somethings include movement in the NCAA Transfer Portal, which is where we’re going to start this Utah Utes mailbag.

As always if you have a question for the Utah Utes mailbag, you can fire off a tweet to @Joshua_Newman, slide into my DMs, email me at jnewman@sltrib.com, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.

Q: “How would you prioritize positions the Utes should be targeting for football in the transfer portal? - @justincraig40

A: Generally speaking, I don’t think any position on Utah’s projected 2022 roster is above some level of scrutiny. Sure, the Utes are solid at QB, TE, RB, and probably DB if everyone is healthy, but there’s no good reason that Kyle Whittingham and his staff should not keep going to the portal, at least for due diligence if there is a player they think can help, regardless of position. Yes, I understand Cam Rising is the unquestioned QB1. My point stands.

To this question, my first instinct is wide receiver. Britain Covey and his 53-514-3 line are gone to the NFL draft. Solomon Enis and Devaughn Vele last season combined for 45-673-2. That is not enough production from your outside guys where Whittingham should be fully content with what he has. Granted, some of this can be put on Utah’s offense being run-dominant in 2021, and more of it can be put on Rising having multiple pass-catching tight ends at his disposal, but again, no position on this roster is above scrutiny.

Utah has to figure out the punting situation this offseason, because what it got out of Cameron Peasley and Michael Williams in 2021 wasn’t good enough. Can some of those troubles be attributed to coverage? Yes, but certainly not all of them.

Beyond those two positions, a general thought: You can never have enough depth along the offensive and defensive lines.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) makes the catch as the Utes play the Oregon Ducks for the 2021 Pac12 Football Championship title at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Dec 3, 2021.

Q: “Any predictions on how the Pac-12 South lays out next year? I’ve got to think Utah is favored to be on top, but I haven’t been following the USC hype train lately.” - @JazzUte9er

A: Barring something unforeseen, I have every intention of putting Utah at No. 1 in the South on my Pac-12 preseason poll ballot in a few months. There are some significant losses (Covey, Devin Lloyd, Nick Ford, etc.), but enough returning pieces (Rising, Tavion Thomas, Brant Kuithe, Dalton Kincaid, etc.) to believe the Utes can win a fourth division title in five seasons.

The USC hype train is legitimate. Lincoln Riley is loading up on talent out of the portal. As I write this, we are still awaiting clarity on the QB situation (Caleb Williams?), but don’t kid yourself, the Trojans are going to be good next season and are quite capable of winning the South.

For me, in mid-January, the separation between Utah and USC comes in the form of QB-OC continuity (advantage Utah), coaching staff continuity (advantage Utah again), and the fact the Trojans have to come to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Oct. 15.

For what it’s worth, the Pac-12 South appears to be pretty deep going into 2022. Utah, USC, UCLA, Arizona State and even Arizona, which has also made hay in the portal, should all feel some level of optimism that they can make some noise next season.

Q: “Thoughts on the new Canadian basketball recruit? Does he have NBA potential?” - @calvinshiny

A: Yeah, it’s time to try and boil down what Utah has in new 2022 recruit Wilguens Exacte Jr., who announced his commitment on Saturday night in the middle of the Utes playing at Arizona.

After Exacte Jr. announced his commitment, this tweet from Josh Millican, a scout for Canada-based North Pole Hoops, took off within Utes Twitter. Millican called Exacte Jr. “One of the most NBA-ready prospects in Canada.”

As a basketball nerd who used to occasionally write on Canadian hoops as it pertained to FIBA and the NBA, I can tell you the guys at North Pole Hoops do good work, but objectivity isn’t always part of the deal. Part of their job is to pump their guys up, and that is what Millican did with Exacte Jr. I would tell him and everyone else who latched on to that tweet to relax.

One source who has seen Exacte Jr. play compared him to current Utah wing Marco Anthony in terms of physique and athleticism, while calling Exacte Jr. a better shooter. Fair enough.

Exacte Jr., a Montreal native, currently plays for NBA Academy Latin America, which also may be causing some confusion as to how good he is, so let’s clarify what that is.

In 2017, the NBA started rolling out academy programs around the world, India, Australia, Africa, Latin America among them. The long-term goal is to identify prospects in a given country or region, and start them on a path towards a potential pro career.

NBA Academy players are not surefire four and five-star type guys. In most cases, they are considered projects, but there are exceptions. One recent example is Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, Bennedict Mathurin, a second-year freshman at Arizona who came out of NBA Academy Latin America. Exacte Jr. has been compared by some to Mathurin, another Montreal kid, but in fairness, Mathurin was a little further along than Exacte Jr. is at the same point.

Very few recruits are no-doubters, but Exacte Jr. does strike me as a bit of a wildcard. He should show up on campus physically ready to compete, but how ready he is in terms of skill and maturation are both question marks.

Q: “How many more pieces does Craig Smith need to get in the next two years in order to make the Runnin’ Utes into an NCAA Tournament team? Not a deep-run tournament team, just a team that gets their name called on Selection Sunday?” - @ColoUte

A: In the next two years? At this point, two years is an eternity that the NCAA is offering one free transfer to everybody. Plus, with the explosion of the transfer portal, a roster could theoretically be turned over in just one offseason. Let’s focus right there, this offseason going into 2022-23.

For starters, there is the matter of how many guys, if any, will opt to return to use the eligibility they still have thanks to the NCAA making 2020-21 a freebie in terms of eligibility. David Jenkins Jr., Both Gach, Marco Anthony, Riley Battin, Dusan Mahorcic, and Lahat Thioune are all in at least their fourth year of college, and all have eligibility left.

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson, center, is squeezed between Utah guards Lazar Stefanovic, left, and Marco Anthony, right, while fighting through a pick in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

How many of those guys come back or, depending on how you choose to view it, how many of them leave, will help dictate how much room Craig Smith and his staff have to alter the roster.

Just given the climate of the sport right now, I’m working under the assumption that not all of those are coming back, and maybe one or multiple younger guys decide to leave as well. Utah unofficially has zero open scholarships left for 2022-23, but I am confident that will change come springtime.

With that said, what does Utah need?

Utah needs help up front. A frontcourt containing Mahorcic, Thioune and Branden Carlson felt thin back in the fall, and now feels even thinner after Mahorcic missed eight games with a right knee injury and Carlson has dealt with a handful of issues, most recently an appendectomy.

Utah needs help at the point. Rollie Worster has been solid for Smith in his first season at Utah, just as he was solid for Smith in his final season at Utah State, but he’s playing a ton, and he isn’t getting enough help from Gach or Lazar Stefanovic in terms of another primary ball-handler.

There are plenty of things that ail this particular Utah team, maybe more than what can legitimately be fixed in one offseason, but one offseason would be a start. Smith and Co. walked into a tough situation back in late March, and things are still tough now. This offseason is critical in terms of getting this thing turned around.

Q: “The Pope is coming over for breakfast on short notice. You have time to go to the store, but not to search for recipes. What are you making?” - @StaircaseWhitt

A: The Pope is a busy guy. He has things to do. He doesn’t have time for a sitdown deal. He is, for whatever reason @StaircaseWhitt dreamed up, coming to my place for breakfast on short notice, so I’m running around the corner to Smith’s and grabbing an Entenmann’s crumb cake, and an Entenmann’s donut variety box. Let’s plate that stuff up and, does the Pope do coffee? Strikes me as a tea guy if anything, but whatever he wants. We can do Nespresso, we can do fresh beans with the grinder, we can do a variety of teas out of the cupboard. Whatever he wants, I’ll offer once he enters and gets comfortable.

I was thinking about keeping this super-casual and hanging out on the couch. We’re not eating anything hot, right? We don’t need a knife, right? Still, this is a man of great importance, so we’ll sit at the kitchen table, across from each other, which will lead to better dialogue. I have questions for him, he may have questions for me, like why is he there, so let’s talk.

This is on short notice, which means I had no time to tidy up the place, which should not be a strike against me.

I hope he had a good time. Next time, his place.

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