Utah coach Kyle Whittingham takes aim at NIL as Utes prepare to face Lincoln Riley’s revamped USC Trojans

Utah and USC will square off Saturday night in another critical game for the Utes following a loss at UCLA.

University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham took aim at the NCAA’s name, image and likeness era on Monday, expressing concerns over the growing gap between college football’s haves and have-nots.

As NIL becomes more prevalent in recruiting, as more donor-run collectives pop up, willing to make it easier to get players paid, the haves will find success, and the have-nots will fade, the Utah coach said.

“Pay them a bunch of money, do you have money we can use to pay them?” Whittingham said tongue-in-cheek when asked for his thoughts on the state of the sport’s NIL rules. “That’s kind of what it comes down to, that’s what it’s coming to. I’m not accusing anyone of illegal improprieties or anything like that because it’s above board now with NIL, but as I said before, there’s going to come a time in the very, very near future where the top-25 NIL pots of money are going to mirror exactly the top-25 teams in the country.

“That’s just how it is. That’s where it’s heading and there’s no debate about it, unless they change the rules. I don’t think they can backpedal now with the can of worms that they’ve opened.”

The influx of NIL dollars has certainly benefitted USC coach Lincoln Riley and his revamped Trojans, who come to Rice-Eccles Stadium this weekend.

Buoyed by a whopping 26 transfers, Riley has quickly turned USC not only a Pac-12 title contender, but also a legitimate threat to reach the College Football Playoff. Also operating with an opportunistic, and a better than expected defense, the Trojans will walk into Rice-Eccles on Saturday night at 6-0 overall, 4-0 in the Pac-12, and ranked No. 7 in the latest AP Top 25.

Among those transfers are his quarterback from Oklahoma, sophomore Heisman Trophy candidate Caleb Williams, and Pitt transfer Jordan Addison, a consensus All-American and last season’s Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top wide receiver.

The transfer portal has radically changed the way roster construction is undertaken, but so too has the ability for student-athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness.

Both Williams and Addison reportedly have NIL valuations nearing or exceeding $1 million. One unofficial valuation from On3.com has Williams’ NIL value at $2.4 million thanks to deals with Fanatics and Beats by Dre, both of which he agreed to within weeks of committing to USC on Feb. 1.

Asked about his relationship with Riley, Whittingham explained that they’ve crossed paths on the recruiting trail when Riley was still at Oklahoma, they’ve been in the same room for Pac-12 meetings, but that he doesn’t know the USC coach well.

“He’s obviously doing a great job at USC,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, the transfer portal is being manifested how impactful it can be there, and at Oklahoma. Oklahoma had mass departures, USC had a mass influx of talent. You see what’s happening, and you’re going to see that teams are going to be able to make major improvement or go the other way more than ever before because of the amount of talent on your roster. There is far more turnover on your roster now than there ever has been in the modern era of college football.”

Thomas Yassmin dealing with a “day-to-day thing”

Whittingham could not say whether fifth-year junior tight end Thomas Yassmin would be available for USC after suffering an injury during the second quarter at UCLA.

“We’ll find out. I don’t know, I haven’t talked to the doctors today,” Whittingham said. “We hope he’s available, but I couldn’t tell you right now. He’s got a problem that is a day-to-day thing, so we’ll see. It’s not something you can say definitely yes or definitively no, it’s how he responds to treatment.”

On first-and-10 from the UCLA 28-yard line, Cam Rising tried to slide a pass intended for Yassmin into heavy traffic around the 5. The pass was intercepted by Darius Muasau as Yassmin took a significant hit, then stayed down momentarily. He was helped off the field, but his afternoon was finished.

Yassmin has seen an increased role in recent weeks with Brant Kuithe out for the season with a torn ACL. After Yassmin went out, Munir McClain took over those reps. Expect McClain to continue to get those reps in multiple-tight end sets if Yassmin is unavailable.

Trying to fix kickoff coverage

One glaring issue in Saturday’s loss at UCLA was kickoff coverage. More specifically, the fact that Utah has to even cover kickoffs at all is irking Whittingham.

“Ideally, we would like every kickoff to be a touchback and not have to worry about defending a return,” said Whittingham, a former special teams coach early in his career who still takes an active role in that phase of the game. “Put the ball at the 25, and let’s go. Right now, with the way we do it, we’re better off kicking it out of bounds, putting it at the 35 and let’s go because teams have been getting it past the 35 with regularity. It’s a definite concern.”

With Jordan Noyes handling kickoff duties, the Bruins’ average starting field position was their own 34-yard line. Over the course of the afternoon, UCLA fielded a kickoff at the 2 and returned it to the 29, at the 6 and returned it to the 39, and at the 5 before returning it to the 48.

The drives that began at the 39 and the 48 both ended in touchdowns.

“Kickoff coverage was once again a negative for us,” Whittingham said. “We gave them good field position far too often, which has been a theme for this season so far. We have to somehow get that turned around. We’ve made every effort, we’ve got to find ways to get that corrected.”