The football coaches huddled around the table looking at every possible move in front of them, but it wasn’t a playbook they were poring over. It was a board game.
Maybe it didn’t matter to Kyle Whittingham if he won that night.
He’d walked into the home a winner, fresh off his second consecutive Pac-12 championship and the rose-wrapped prize that comes with it. And the Utah head coach was about to win again: The next night, Timpview senior Spencer Fano, one of the best offensive tackles in the country and one of the other people gathered around that board game, would don the red cap sitting in front of him.
“I’m a Ute now,” Fano declared.
The lineman’s commitment came on the same day his older brother, Logan, a former four-star edge rusher who spent this season at BYU, announced he would be entering the NCAA Transfer Portal. Logan, who has yet to play a snap as a collegian after tearing his ACL during spring practice, announced his commitment to Utah the following day.
That, though, came mere hours after Utah got a significant transfer portal win in the form of Stanford linebacker Levani Damuni, a former four-star recruit himself. Damuni, a Providence native who starred for Ridgeline High School, stood out on some bad Cardinal teams, totaling 207 tackles in 31 career games across four seasons.
After landing four four-star talents in a 24-hour window, it’s fair to wonder: Is Utah beginning to see a Rose Bowl bump?
Recruiting with roses
A year ago at this time, the bulk of Utah’s 2022 recruiting class was already locked in ahead of the early signing period beginning. The group included three four-star commits, Nate Johnson, Jaylon Glover, and Lander Barton, who on Tuesday was named Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. Still, after Utah won the Pac-12 championship game last season, it was able to add commits during the run-up to the program’s first Rose Bowl.
The highest-rated of those gets was three-star linebacker Justin Medlock, who committed on Dec. 15, 2021, the same day as three-star Hawaiian edge rusher Kaeo Akana. Promising three-star wide receiver Sidney Mbanasor got on board that month, as did another edge rusher, Dallas native Chase Kennedy, plus 6-7, 300-pound Brighton High School tackle Tyler Knaack.
None of those late gets has made a significant impact as a freshman in 2022, but that is beside the point. Utah getting to the Rose Bowl last season opened new doors, or in some cases, reopened doors that had already been closed to it.
The new NCAA Transfer Portal window opened on Monday and will remain open for 45 days through Jan. 18. The early signing period for high school recruits begins on Dec. 21. In the immediate wake of advancing to another Rose Bowl, Whittingham and his staff have already found success with the portal, and appear primed to sign what is projected as the program’s highest-rated recruiting class ever, per the 247sports composite.
Is Utah getting another Rose Bowl bump? Before answering, consider this. Per 247sports, Utah’s 2023 recruiting class was ranked 57th nationally at the start of the week. After Logan Fano and Damuni committed, it finished Wednesday with 17 commits and ranked 26th overall.
Fano is a four-star recruit and the No. 8-rated offensive tackle in the country, according to 247Sports. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he has a frame and skillset that the recruiting site’s national editor, Brandon Huffman, likened to former Timpview standout Xavier Su’a-Filo, who went on to become an All-American at UCLA and a second-round NFL draft pick.
“I like Spencer further along at this same stage,” Huffman said during Fano’s live-streamed announcement from the family’s home in Spanish Fork Canyon.
The Utes contingent — Whittingham, along with assistants Morgan Scalley, Jim Harding, Lewis Powell and Freddie Whittingham — made its final visit on Monday night. But it was a first impression that had stuck with Fano.
The Utes had to hold off a list of finalists that included Clemson, Oregon, and Michigan. The Ducks and Wolverines made home visits in the days preceding Utah’s home visit on Monday.
“I chose Utah because Utah was the very first school to believe in me,” he said.
When Spencer Fano announced his choice on Tuesday, Logan Fano had made his transfer portal announcement hours earlier, so there was a question about the latter’s future. Blair Angulo, a 247sports recruiting analyst who covers the West region and the host of Spencer’s commitment live stream, asked him about Logan.
“I’ll make sure he’s a Ute,” Spencer said.
There wasn’t much doubt as to where this recruitment would go once Spencer announced where he was going. How quickly it came together may have come as a surprise, though.
If healthy, where Logan fits into the mix at defensive end at Utah is a question entering spring practice, especially if Van Fillinger and Jonah Elliss remain prolific at the end spots. Fillinger, Utah’s leader in sacks this fall at the time of his injury, was lost for the season Nov. 5 vs. Arizona.
It should be noted that Utah had another Cardinal transfer pan out this season. Gabe Reid had 39 tackles, the most by a Utes defensive lineman, including 10 tackles for a loss and a team-leading 5.5 sacks.
Damuni could be project as an opening-day starter, depending on where Utah puts him, but there is a hole to fill with yet another transfer portal success, Mohamoud Diabate leaving after this season. If Utah goes with three linebackers, it could wind up being Damuni, Barton, and Karene Reid, not taking into account which guys currently in the room take steps forward before next fall. A two-linebacker in Utah’s 4-2-5 would yield some questions, if not debate.
Hunter Clegg, a four-star edge rusher from American Fork High School, had been committed to Stanford since June, but that came before longtime head coach David Shaw having stepped down. Clegg visited UCLA last weekend. But Utah, which was among the first schools to offer him early in his junior year, appears to have won another recruiting battle.
Clegg posted on Twitter late Thursday night that he had flipped his commitment to Utah.
Other possible targets
The recruiting experts, both locally and nationally, have indicated in recent days that Utah is not done, with another local prospect remaining a big priority with the first day of the early signing period looming.
Smith Snowden is a four-star cornerback from Skyridge High School with a final four of Utah, BYU, Northwestern, and Colorado, although the Buffaloes offered and cracked Snowden’s final list before the hiring of new head coach Deion Sanders last week. Utah is considered the favorite, and there is some belief, depending on who you ask, that Snowden could find an immediate role within assistant coach Sharrieff Shah’s cornerbacks rooms.