Utah Utes mailbag: Is Utah basketball coach Craig Smith’s recruiting strategy apt or antiquated?

Plus: Who will lead Utah in sacks, ranking basketball’s non-conference opponents, and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah head coach Craig Smith, cheers on his team, in the Utes 96-62 win over the Manhattan Jaspers at the Jon M.Huntsman Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021.

The University of Utah basketball team is back on campus and has begun summer workouts ahead of Craig Smith’s second season at the helm.

In the middle of that, one recruiting evaluation period just ended and another is about to begin, so we’re going to start this Utes mailbag right there: What should we make of Craig Smith’s recruiting strategy?

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “It seems that, while the Runnin’ Utes are “in the mix” for a number of hoops recruits, they don’t seem to like to hand out public offers (intentionally). What do you make of this strategy?” - Anonymous

A: Good question, which has been asked by more than a couple of people as the last recruiting cycle came down the home stretch.

First, let’s clarify exactly what we’re talking about. When our anonymous friend here references public offers, no scholarship offer is made publicly by a coaching staff. What happens is, a scholarship offer is extended, and the recruit then chooses to announce it on social media, or feed it to his/her preferred media/recruiting outlet, who then makes it public.

Second, there are two different types of scholarship offers. There are offers that are just thrown out there to recruits, but then there are committable offers, where the staff has zeroed in on a kid and is actively, seriously recruiting him/her with the intention of getting to the finish line.

Now, down to business. Under second-year Utes head coach Craig Smith, we haven’t really seen a lot of public offers, which means Smith and his staff are not tossing out a dozen-plus offers to recruits of varying age. There are programs that will offer lots and lots of kids, but few, if any of those, are committable offers, especially those offers being given to current freshmen and sophomores.

Smith has made clear in the past that he recruits with intent: he does not lob dozens of offers out there across all four high school classes, and he is not accepting a commitment from anyone unless he believes that player, at some point, can help the program and push it forward. As a point of reference, as Smith put together his first roster, he had room for two more scholarships last spring. He used one on Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College forward Bostyn Holt, then wound up sitting on the 13th and final scholarship.

Smith’s second roster, which includes a bunch of NCAA Transfer Portal turnover, both coming and going, appears set to be the same. Utah is at 12 scholarships, and at this point, unless Smith unearths a late JuCo qualifier or is waiting on an international kid to make a decision, the roster is set.

I like that Smith has taken the road he has, being particular about who is getting a committable offer, because ultimately, what gets accomplished if you’re throwing an offer to a freshman or a sophomore? How does that benefit Utah? To me, that is a waste of time and does nothing to move you forward as a program.

Of course, we’re talking about recruiting high school kids and, in the case of Holt, junior college players, but the real focus these days is the portal, where fortunes can turn around in one offseason.

Has Smith and staff done enough in the portal this offseason to take tangible steps forward off 20 losses in 2021-22? I don’t know yet, and neither does anyone else.

But here’s one thing on my mind pertaining to this topic: Smith earlier this spring spoke about the ability or the need to still build a program, not just a team, which is what the portal has turned college basketball into.

That line of thinking has served Smith well, but as the recruiting end of his job morphs with the portal offering immediately-eligible free agency, I’m not convinced that line of thinking isn’t a little antiquated.

Q: “What’s your prediction on who will lead the team in sacks? Do the Utes have an elite pass rusher?” - @PatWhite21

A: My knee-jerk reaction to who will lead the team in sacks is Stanford transfer Gabe Reid, who played outside linebacker for the Cardinal, but projects as a defensive end for the Utes.

All of that said, Reid has never played a snap for Utah, which means he has never played in Morgan Scalley’s defensive scheme, so I find it hard to pencil in him right now for nine sacks, 10 sacks, whatever number you think will lead the team.

Van Fillinger, a key recruit of the 2020 COVID freshman class, stepped forward last fall and had a productive season, finishing with 5.5 sacks, good for third on the team, while starting 13 games and playing in all 14. Fillinger has the most experience among defensive ends, he’s a proven commodity, and he projects to start at one defensive end spot, so he’s the pick here.

Defensive end is an intriguing fall camp spot to keep an eye on, because while Mika Tafua is gone, Fillinger returns, Reid is coming, and Kyle Whittingham has had positive things to say about Jonah Elliss and Miki Suguturaga. There is depth at the position.

Another option to lead Utah in sacks if it’s not Reid or Fillinger, defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, last season’s Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Q: “What do you think was the bigger liability last year: punt/kicking or return coverage, and how do you think that gets addressed going into summer?” - @t_ricks96

A: To be fair, neither of those were very good last season, but the punting/kicking situation was downright bad at times, earning the ire of Kyle Whittingham, who famously has a hand in his special teams units.

Off the top of my head, there was a blocked punt returned for a touchdown at Oregon State, another blocked in Corvallis waved off due to a penalty, a blocked punt at Arizona, and a bobbled long snap in the third quarter of the Rose Bowl, which set up Ohio State up at the 11-yard line and led to a touchdown. Additionally, place-kicking duties changed hands a couple of times during the season with Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyes dealing with respective struggles.

How are these things getting addressed? It’s not like Utah doesn’t practice these things, and I don’t think there’s a need to reinvent the wheel. Tighten things up, shore things up, stay the course.

Redding was the All-Pac-12 first-team kicker in 2020. He’s 114-for-116 for his career on PATs and 28-for-35 on field goals, including 3-for-4 last season beyond 40 yards. He knows what he’s doing. At worst, he should go into camp as the favorite for the job over Noyes, who will again handle kickoff duties.

As for punting, Cameron Peasley is out, in is another Australian, Jack Bouwmeester, while Michael Williams returns. Stay tuned.

Q: “Rank Utah basketball’s non-conference opponents.” - @coreyc04

A: TCU returns All-Big-12 guard Mike Miles, is coming off 21 wins, and projects as a top-15-ish team to open 2022-23. The Horned Frogs visiting Vivint Arena on Dec. 21 to complete a pseudo home-and-home series is the biggest, best game on the non-conference slate.

A trip to BYU will have some juice, and the draw for Fort Myers Tip-Off will produce two games among a group of Marquette, Mississippi State, and Georgia Tech. Those MTE game options are not a bunch of world-beaters, but it’s better than what Utah had last year against Rhode Island, Boston College and Tulsa at the Sunshine Slam.

Beyond that, LIU Brooklyn, Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho State, Sam Houston State, St. Thomas and UTSA finished last season with an average KenPom rating of 268.3. Three of those teams finished last season with 300-plus KenPom ratings.

I will not be spending any part of the afternoon, day, week, or month ranking those six games.

TCU, BYU, Fort Myers, then everything else. Next question.

Q: “Where does one find the best banana daiquiri in St. Augustine Beach?” - @BrucePerdu

A: *Squints*

This is probably a troll job, but there is also the small chance you think enough of me that I would know about daiquiri options in a popular beach community along the Northern Florida coast.

What’s the plan here? You’re going to Utah-Florida on Sept. 3, but you’re making a long weekend out of it, flying into Jacksonville, then driving the 40 miles to St. Augustine Beach to hang out at the Atlantic Ocean, at which point you’re less than two hours from Gainesville?

I don’t know if that’s your plan, but if it’s not your plan, it should be your plan. That is not my plan, but I wish it were.

Anyway, banana, huh? Be better than that. Daiquiris are better when made with citrus fruits. Lemon, lime, grapefruit, maybe blood orange if you’re feeling wild.

Either way, be safe about it. To paraphrase a friend’s father on New Year’s Eve one year before we ventured out during my college years, “Don’t be dumb.” His language was a tad more colorful, but you get the point.

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