Utah Utes mailbag: Could the drama of college football realignment push Kyle Whittingham to retirement?

Plus: The battle for QB2, media cheerleading, recruits amidst realignment uncertainty, and more

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham as the University of Utah football team practices for the Rose Bowl at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Fall camp is finally upon us, and the University of Utah is inside 50 days to a high-profile opener at the University of Florida, but let’s not sugarcoat it.

The biggest college football story in the country right now is realignment. Realignment, plus of all of the factors and fallout that will, or may, come along with it. We’re going to start this week’s Utes mailbag right there.

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: “Is it possible that all of this realignment drama is something that pushes Whitt to retire early?” - @foxonabox_

A: In fairness, Kyle Whittingham’s job now does not look like it did five years ago. Actually, scratch that: Whittingham’s job now doesn’t look the same as even a year ago.

The new name, image and likeness rules could be construed as a new headache for head coaches, with any number of recruits (and their families) hoping to cash in. That is a huge, prevalent factor in terms of recruiting right now, not only at Utah, but all over the national landscape.

A year after Texas and Oklahoma declaring their intentions to leave the Big 12 for the SEC shook the sport, this latest round of realignment, with UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, has hit closer to home for Whittingham. The two Los Angeles schools leaving has thrown the Pac-12 into upheaval, with the future of the league unclear at the moment. What Whittingham’s conference affiliation looks like starting in 2024 is technically unknown, not to mention a source of discussion, from the president/chancellor level, all the way down to the message boards.

Back to the question. Is this round of realignment going to be the catalyst that causes Whittingham, 62 and entering his 18th season as head coach, to retire?

My instinct is no, this specifically is not going to be the tipping point. Is realignment and everything associated with potential wholesale changes a new factor that he’ll start weighing with his family as another season comes to an end? Yeah, absolutely. You’re already factoring in health, family, drive, money, love of your profession, and anything else I forgot, why would you not factor this in, especially if the Pac-12 ceases to exist at some point, or Utah winds up changing conferences.

A few loose thoughts here. Whittingham once said that transitioning from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 was like “spanning the Grand Canyon.” Any potential move here for Utah would be less daunting from a competitive standpoint than what occurred a decade ago. ... No one outside his family and those within the Eccles Football Center knows how the deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe affected Whittingham physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I think his returning in 2022 was an indication that he is in a good place in all three facets. ... A reminder that Whittingham has said in the past he doesn’t believe he’ll be coaching past 65. He would turn 65 late in the 2024 season. ... If Whittingham coaches through the remainder of his latest contract alteration, he is guaranteed $32 million in base salary through 2027. Let’s not be naive and pretend generational wealth won’t play a role.

Q: “I’m interested in more on who will back up Rising this year in case he gets hurt again.” - @JamesinUtah

A: You and me both.

The situation at the top of the QB depth chart is in cement, which has not been the case at Utah in recent years. It’s Cam Rising. No camp competition, no injury rehab, no graduate transfer out of the portal acting as a one-year rental, no questions. The situation behind Rising, though, is unsettled. That makes Bryson Barnes vs. JaQuinden Jackson one of the more intriguing storylines for camp, which is expected to begin Aug. 5 in anticipation of the opener at Florida on Sept. 3.

You never want to assume anything, but I’m working under the cautious assumption that Jackson will eventually overtake Barnes and open the season as Rising’s backup.

“Ja’Quinden Jackson has really improved his game from the fall,” Whittingham said after a spring practice in March. “He’s really worked hard and he looked really good today. If you talk about standouts, he’d definitely be one of them today. He’s elevated his play.”

I understand why Barnes, not Jackson, was called upon in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl. I also understand what Barnes did in that game and why that should maybe carry some weight as this QB2 competition moves into August.

As I think about this, I keep coming back to believing that there is simply too much potential from Jackson, both as a thrower and a runner, to cast him aside as No. 3. That is surely dependent upon Jackson continuing to earn trust from Whittingham and Andy Ludwig, but that’s where I’m at.

Not for nothing, and I’ve written this before, if Rising goes down this fall, it’s going to be a real problem. Jackson and Barnes have a combined two career passing attempts between them, both belonging to Barnes in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl.

Q: “What Whittingham pose do they use for the statue?” - @MJ_Utes

A: We joke here, but with all sincerity, would anyone argue if Utah moved to make this a reality once Whittingham decides to retire? Winningest coach in program history, conference titles in two different leagues, including a Power Five, and the program’s first Rose Bowl appearance are three factors that come to mind immediately.

So, now that we all agree that Whittingham deserves a statue outside Rice-Eccles Stadium, determining the pose is hugely crucial. Future generations of Utes fans will make pilgrimages to see this thing, so decision-makers have to nail it.

Have you seen the GIF of Whittingham giving an approving thumbs up to someone during the Pac-12 championship game in December? I thought of that initially as the statute pose, but then thought better of it. That would get roasted on the internet in the short term.

After careful consideration, the move here is to capture Whittingham with one of his quintessential, not scowls, but stoic looks, where you can’t quite tell if he’s angry, but it’s clear he probably isn’t too thrilled either. OK, maybe it’s a scowl, you decide.

Here is an example of what I mean, and another, and another.

Q: “Which coach will have the most shade-thrown quote against USC and UCLA leaving? Does USC leaving now all but assure Utah gets the media vote for No. 1 because folks are cheering against USC on their way out?” - @justincraig

A: I would take a stab at that first question, and yes, someone is going to throw shade at some point next Friday, but putting that out there would likely be bad for business.

As for the second question, are you consciously trying to get me fired up?

I forget exactly how many media members vote in the Pac-12 preseason poll. It’s something like 40 or 50, one of which is me. I haven’t submitted my ballot yet, but it’s going to have Utah at No. 1. When the poll is released ahead of Pac-12 media day beginning, the Utes are not going to be the unanimous pick to win the conference, but they should be the consensus pick.

Listen to me very carefully. Any voting media member putting Utah at No. 1 in an effort to “stick it” to USC on the way out should hand in their notice immediately and pick a different profession. There are of course media members at every level of sports who are incapable of hiding their favoritism/homerism, and it makes me cringe every time I see it.

Moving on.

Q: “What grade would you give Utah’s recruiting amid the realignment uncertainty?” - @darvintwin

A: The UCLA/USC news broke on June 30. Since then, Utah has received commitments from three-star linebacker Johnathan Hall, four-star safety Randon Fontenette, and four-star athlete Carlos Wilson. A fourth commitment in that span, running back Michael Mitchell, got bumped from a three-star to a four-star via the 247sports composite earlier this week.

Recruiting-wise at Utah right now, it feels like it’s heads down, business as usual, really nothing out of the ordinary. So how do you grade that? B? B-plus?

Interesting timing on this question, because a colleague came up with an interesting point over the weekend as we talked about Utah and its 2023 recruiting class as it pertains to the ongoing realignment chaos.

Yes, with all of the uncertainty out there, it could affect 2023 recruiting, but the intrigue here lies with the 2024 and 2025 kids Whittingham and his staff are just starting to get in with. If you are the parents of a Power Five recruit in the 2024 and 2025 classes, you genuinely don’t know for sure where Utah will be playing.

Will the Utes be playing in the Pac-12 in 2024? Maybe.

Will they be in the Big 12? Well, we can’t exactly rule it out.

Will whatever bastardized version of the Pac-12 remains when this is all over include Utah, and will it be playing at ACC schools as part of a scheduling agreement? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

I digress a tad, but yeah, Utah is just powering right along on the recruiting trail, even as questions swirl about the future of its football program, let alone its entire athletic department.

Q: “What is the best bug repellant to take to the Florida game?” - @Emailer Paul

A: I laughed when this question showed up in my inbox Tuesday morning before 7:30 a.m., before I’d finished a cup of coffee. You people are alright, man.

If you’ve never been to Florida, but are traveling there for the opener, get ready. Florida is hot, sticky, sweaty, and humid. The humidity is often suffocatingly uncomfortable, which in part leads to mosquitos and insects all over the place.

When venturing outside in Florida in late August and early September, yes, you’re going to want some bug repellent. But here’s the problem: Insect repellents generally have a strong smell due to the chemicals in them, especially DEET-based products. Do you really want to be out and about all day smelling like insect repellent chemicals? Of course not, so here’s what you’re going to do. Ready?

Hit up Amazon for a pack of BuggyBands. A pack of 24 individually wrapped, reusable bracelets in multiple colors will run you about $27 at the moment, and it’s worth every penny. No chemical smell, no lotions or sprays to cover yourself in, just the bracelet. It does have a light lemony, citronella smell, which I personally find quite pleasant.

This topic has me thinking about the humidity in Florida, which is just the worst. The last time I was in that state was July 2012, in Orlando for work. I caught an early-morning flight home to New Jersey, so I walked out of the hotel at roughly 4:30 a.m. Even at that hour, the air was enough to choke you.

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